SOCIETY'S TOLERANCE for alcohol abuse is, or at least has been, too high. Excuses abound: killers who didn't mean to kill, pranksters who only meant to have fun, bartenders only doing their jobs. Harsh penalties for drunk drivers or occasionally violent husbands are resisted by many people who identify with and tolerate excessive drinking and therefore hesitate to punish severely the chance injury that results. But there is growing public militancy about drunk driving, and declining sympathy for the destructive play of sodden teen-agers. School officials in Loudoun County have joined their Fairfax counterparts in equiping high schools and middle schools with breath analysis devices. They will suspend students found mixing liquor with learning.

Cost estimates for alcohol-related productivity losses, illnesses and deaths, of which there are over 200,000 per year, start at $50 billion anually and go up. There are countless unmeasured losses ranging from divorces to child molestation. It's one of the country's greatest public health problems, but that doesn't come close to capturing the craziness. A Gallup Poll indicates that one in three families has a problem with alcohol, and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse reports that 3 million youths aged 14-17, almost one in five, are problem drinkers. Along with that goes a greater likelihood of truancy, delinquency, drug abuse, chronic illness--a list of social and psychological problems long enough to cut short any arcane cause-and-effect debate. The alarmingly high rates of teen-age alcohol abuse, stable since data collection started in 1975, are cause enough for action. But by whom?

Parents come in all degrees of permissiveness. Values, judgment, discipline--it's hard for public institutions to supply these when parents fail to, but they should try. From society's point of view, serious drinking is just too popular among teen-agers (and adults, for that matter). Parties and street corners prove that. Alcohol abuse in schools, like any other discipline problem, can disrupt the general enterprise, as well as as be destructive for the individual child. Yes, child. Even when parents abdicate, and perhaps especially when they do, it makes sense to bring out of retirement the old in loco parentis and enforce a sharp standard: you come to school to learn and grow, not to goof off and poison yourself. School officials should plunge in and try to change the behavior. With luck, they'll also change attitudes.