Laura was 13 and still in braces when she had her first drink. The neighborhood picnic was crowded and the beer was free. Nobody seemed to mind when she took a can or two for herself.

"I couldn't stand the taste of it, but I really liked the effects," the Fairfax County high school junior recalls. "Pretty soon I didn't waste my time on beer. I skipped to hard liquor, and the only reason I drank was to get drunk." At school Laura began to drink regularly and to sample drugs like candy. She moved through her classes in an alcoholic stupor or psychedelic bewilderment. Her school work foundered.

"That's what high school was for, to get high," says Laura, pulling at her thick, reddish brown hair. "There's always a group passing something around, and the teachers are really ignorant."

Drinking and drug abuse have reached near-epidemic proportions in Washington area schools, according to officials here. In Northern Virginia alone, administrators estimate there are at least 20,000 teen-agers who, like Laura, are alcoholics or have serious drinking problems. Nationally, it is estimated that about 98 percent of high school students will try some form of drinking before they graduate.

Yet despite widespread agreement that teen-age drinking can have tragic consequences, debate rages in many area school systems on how to handle the problem. Parents blame the schools for not cracking down on juvenile alcohol and drug abusers; the schools protest that parents are usually ready to believe the worst about any child but their own.

"The public schools are not a treatment facility," argues Marie Stern, a Fairfax County health education planner who has found it's not always easy to pinpoint offenders.

"When the bell rings, and the kids all walk in, and we're 10 minutes into the lesson and Johnny puts his head on his desk, that's very subtle behavior. You don't always know a drug is involved," she cautions.

Stern and other school authorities say it is unrealistic to expect them to stop teen-agers from experimenting with alcohol and drugs. They agree the problem is massive but contend the faulth lies with a society that is drug oriented.

"Things don't begin at school, things continue at school," goes the blunt assessment of Wayne Harris, a former principal who is now administrative assistant to Fairfax County's school superintendent. He believes schools have a better hope of educating younger children against abuses than of preventing current offenders, but his views are challenged by some parents and substance abuse counselors.

"The schools are the place where most of this is introduced, yet the schools have an almost citadel mentality," complains William G. Sutcliffe, a McLean parent who serves on a community-police advisory task force on alcohol and drug abuse. "We're seeing our kids and the kids of our friends getting in trouble and being unable to complete their education even in the most rudimentary way."

Jack Caffrey, a counselor for juveniles in the Fairfax Community Action Program's Alcoholism Outreach unit, agrees that schools have resisted taking a coordinated approach in dealing with the situation.

"We have had a real problem getting into the schools; we haven't had one referral from them," he says. "They don't know how to deal with the problem, other than suspending the kids. We need [substance abuse] counselors in the schools themselves."

Caffrey says drug and alcohol abuse are problems in every school, with alcolhol considered much more socially acceptable and cheaper and therefore in greater use by teen-agers. But the addiction to getting high and the reliance on a chemically induced euphoria can cause alarming harm to young lives beyond their ability to cope.

While "living to get high," some teen-agers are also killing themselves. Drunk driving accidents, like one that police say caused the deaths of four young people in Annandale last November, are among parents' worst nightmares. In Virginia, 67 teen-agers died and more than 1,500 were injured last year in traffic accidents involving the use of alcohol by the drivers.

"I've got a kid now who is still in a coma after running a stop light," says Ken Freeman, a former coach and mathematics teacher who is a substance abuse coordinator at McLean High School.

Some school administrators feel threatened by the problem, but Caffrey says parents often are no better. Several pulled their sons or daughters out of this program "because they didn't like the word 'alcoholic.'"

Meanwhile, urged on by their own hurry to grow up, pressured by funseeking peers, many teen-agers have fallen into drinking and drug habits that would have horrified their parents at that age.

"I started drinking on my own at 11," says one 16-year-old boy. "It was at a New Year's Eve party, and I had Southern Comfort with an older brother. I loved everything about it. I had been getting A's and B's in elementary school. By the time I was in junior high I was getting D's and F's and drinking twice a week."

Adds a 16-year-old sophomore at Falls Church's George Mason High School: "I was 7 and my older cousins mixed me some vodka and orange juice.I made a face, but I liked it. I remember feeliing really good . . . then I passed out. By 15, I was drinking every day and I got caught and suspended three times for drinking in school."

These teen-agers, both of whom are now in Alcoholics Anonymous and say they have been sober and drug-free for several months to a year, still must contend with a school environment where drug and alcohol use is the norm.

"I know some kids who are not even in high school who go there to get high," says Laura. She and others described how students carry liquor around in soft drink or juice cans or buy "pot, speed, acid, anything you want" from classmates. At lunchtime, and despite school rules fobidding it, the kids make for their well-stocked cars and vans in the parking lot.

"There's just no way the 25 faculty members can stop 2,500 kids who want to party," says Robert, a 17-year-old at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. "Kids will do what they want, and many drink before first period and go to class already drunk."

The teenagers scoff at the notion that school discipline or strickter drinking laws will curtail abuses.

Hoping to "get alcohol out of the schools," Del. Warren E. Barry (r-Fairfax) recently won General Assembly passage of a bill that raises to 19 the age that beer may be purchased for off-premises consumption. But students point out that, though still underage, they have managed to buy or otherwise get hold of beer and liquor for years.

The only program that worked for them, they say, were the A.A. counseling sessions with other alcoholics or, in the case of one student interviewed, a court-orderd stint in Arlington Hospital's detoxification center. But parents and school officials seem to panic more about drug use than alcohol and are slow to get juveniles the help they may not realize they need.

"Alcohol is the No. 1 problem of youth today, but Mom and Dad don't want to recognize it," argues Cpl. Gilbert Barrington, a youth services officer with the Fairfax City police. "The kids don't seem to think they can go out and have a good time without getting drunk, and the parents don't care. They may even be drinking at home with them."

Even when parents are concerned, youngsters resort to ruses. One student, a pretty blond whose older appearance made it easier for her to be served liquor, used to lie to her parents. She would tell them she was going to a movie or a school dance and after they dropped her off she and a girlfriend would hitchhike to other destinations. Sometimes they would just hitchhike up and down Rte. 236 or Rte. 50 "until we'd get a ride with someone who'd get us high."

Drinking in school is so pervasive, she says, that "starting on Wednesday, it's like the flu going around, with everybody asking 'where are the parties? where are the parties?' It's a big thing constantly. You can see beer cans in the bathrooms a lot and hear talk about skipping class and going over to someone's house to get drunk when their parents are gone."

Joyce Tobias founded the Parents' Association to Neutralize Drug and Alcohol Abuse (PANDAA) after she ran into trouble with her two oldest sons.She organized a group at Jefferson High School in Fairfax County to stricter enforcement of school rules, and her efforts have attracted the interest of other parents. She warns them to set a curfew, wait up for their children and "check" them when they come home to see if they smell of liquor or can't hold a conversation.

"And be suspicious if they go to a lot of parties," she advises. "There aren't many parties going on that aren't drinking parties."

Arlington County has a program that places drug and alcohol counselors in the schools and recreation centers. The larger Fairfax County school system does not, although students are given substance abuse pamphlets and a list of "hot line" referral numbers for county-sponsored treatment programs.

At Crossroads, a drug rehabilitation program for adults and teen-agers, counselor Joan Kaplan says parents and schools should stop fighting among themselves and coordinate their efforts. "It's kind of a Catch-22 situation," she says. "It's easy to point the finger of blame, but I think everybody's at fault."