THE RECENT assault on an 11-year-old boy held in custody in this city has focused attention on the juvenile justice system as it operates and as it should operate. In general, the law treats youngsters in a less formal, more flexible way than adults and employs a wide range of options in dealing with offenders. In juvenile cases, there are no carefully defined charges with degrees of seriousness and fixed penalties such as those in the criminal code that governs adult behavior. There are few hard and fast rules concerning dispositions, and the courts are relatively free to construct penalties and rehabilitation programs designed for individual youngsters.

This wide discretion is not only right in dealing with children, it is usually effective well. But occasionally the failure to adhere to any commonly accepted guidelines causes problems, as it did with the District youngster. A terrible mistake was made in detaining the boy, in confining him with older, threatening teen-agers and in failing to provide supervision. In a few short hours he was subject to a sexual assault that will affect him forever. This mistake could have been avoided if standards for juvenile detention had been adopted and observed.

A task force of the American Bar Association spent most of the '70s studying the juvenile justice system and formulating standards that encourage individual consideration of these cases within a framework that ensures fairness to the youngsters involved. These standards have been published in 23 volumes that treat most aspects of the system, from police handling of youngsters to the design of correctional facilities. One volume, dealing specifically with the release, control and detention of accused juveniles between arrest and disposition, sets out standards that would have been helpful in dealing with the 11-year-old. Under these guidelines, a child without prior offenses who had not been accused of something as serious as murder would not have been detained. The guidelines prohibit detention to punish a juvenile, to satisfy demands of a victim or to facilitate further questioning or investigation. The suggested rules carefully define the responsibilities of the police, the court social workers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and courts. Standards governing the facilities in which juveniles are temporarily detained are set out. None of these guidelines diminishes the ability of authorities to treat each case individually and with the special attention we owe youngsters.

The ABA runs training programs, counsels legislators and court officials and lobbies within the legal profession to bring attention to these guidelines and promote their adoption. All who work in juvenile justice should be familiar with them; all who care about children and how they are treated in our society will find them thoughtful, practical and fair.

A story in last week's Weekly said Northern Virginia Community College will be forced to lay off 55 teachers and support staff because of declines in student enrollment. College officials said that they expect to reduce the staffing level by not filling current vacancies within departments. No teachers, and only a few, if any, clerical and support staff, are expected to be let go.