Ever since that old goat Pan first arose out of the mists of mythology to entice slumbering mortals into annual acts of the Bacchanalia, the rites of spring have turned sensible people into fools.

This year in America is no exception, with one great "however": this year the acts have gone far beyond the bounds of foolishness into something more sinister.

Easter weekend, as beautiful as any on the East Coast, was happily free of the kinds of ominous international "hard news" war-and-peace events that have recently focused American attention on military action in Central America and the Gulf of Sidra off Libya. The threatening news this holiday weekend was here at home.

The place: the affluent desert resort of Palm Springs, Calif. The event: a vicious, violent riot, captured in all its ugliness by the network television cameras.

Saturday night's network newscasts showed mobs of drunken American college students on rampage during their spring break from campuses across the country. They roamed through downtown streets of the resort, overturned cars, smashed windows, threw rocks and bottles, exposed themselves, hurled drinks at passing motorists and pedestrians and literally tore the clothes off women. Robberies and beatings were reported. Police were quoted as saying the riot went out of control. The sheer numbers of the marauding students made it physically impossible for police to arrest any but a small percentage of lawbreakers.

This was no isolated incident. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the other traditional spot for students on spring break, the number of arrests for disorderly conduct and drunkenness stood at over 2,100 after last weekend, more than double the previous year's figures. Seven students vacationing in Florida died in spring break accidents, some in falls from hotel balconies.

And all this after a major effort this year to crack down on student lawlessness.

There's nothing new, of course, about outlandish or outrageous collegiate behavior. Each generation seems to invent some new form of stupidity that the next seeks to top. The more innocent goldfish eating contests of the '20s and '30s gave way to the more abusive panty raids of the '50s. It was in the '60s, though, that the springtime trek from campus to beaches and sun resorts became institutionalized, glamorized and then commercially exploited.

Over the years a succession of movies celebrated more and more flagrant behavior of the anything-goes sort typified by "Animal House" antics. And over the years the commercialization of the spring break process, with national advertisements luring students to the supposed sun-and-fun holiday scenes of Florida or California, has produced an annual springtime spending splurge now estimated at $300 million.

But none of this explains why student behavior seems to become worse each passing year, and what possible message can be drawn from it. In this, as in other areas of national concern, questions are easier to come by than answers. Some obvious ones:

To what extent does the intense pressure to succeed, the Holy National Grail of being No. 1, adversely affect today's college students?

Does the pressure, desire or need to spend additional years of postgraduate studies for highly competitive professional careers add to collegiate tensions?

Has the very proliferation of college students -- many more competing for fewer good positions -- contributed to the underlying problems?

Finally, who is even trying to address these kinds of questions so that others can begin to understand them?

Ron Cochran has witnessed 27 collegiate spring break episodes in Fort Lauderdale as a member of the police force there, the last four as police chief. He expresses himself over the phone in a calm, low-keyed manner and makes no easy claims of instant wisdom on what's behind the student behavior. He finds it as hard to justify two-week drunken orgies as spring ritual as to account for what he calls "all that pent-up need to get rid of stress."

As a police officer, he's convinced sterner measures are called for, and he implemented them this year in his community -- even though, as he says, "a lot of local merchants" complained that would hurt their student business. His is a sensible approach, but not a solution.