An undercover operation by District police officials resulted in the arrest last week of seven McKinley High School students on charges of selling PCP to classmates and friends. The most troubling part of the case was the way in which these students allegedly operated: brazenly, in the hallways, in the school parking lots, with an ostentatious indifference to being seen or caught. They even carried electronic pagers to signal each other for buying and selling, according to police. The pagers frequently went off during class. How could the school system allow drug activity to reach such levels of sophistication inside school buildings? Why has the D.C. Board of Education continued to drag its feet on abolishing a ludicrous policy that forbids student expulsions even when the student is selling illicit drugs?

School-based administrators and the school board have failed to serve the needs of students who come to school to learn in an atmosphere that is as free from such activity as possible. Police say that the sale and use of deadly drugs such as PCP have been taken over by school-aged youths. But it would be a mistake for the school system to give police a free hand in the fight against drugs in school buildings. Schools, no matter how tough the neighborhoods, are still controlled environments and under the public control of adults who are or ought to be responsible for the atmosphere in their buildings. Strong leadership can do much to eradicate the drug problem, and the principals are the key.

Hine Junior High School in Northeast Washington is doing the tough things that are required. Every entrance to the school is locked from the inside except one; an adult is stationed at that one entrance at all times. Visitors are escorted to where they are going inside the building. Hall passes are required, and the principal and her assistants are very visible in the hallways. Anything like an electronic pager gets confiscated. Yes, it is stern, but it works -- and it works without overly involving the police.

One of the biggest responsibilities school administrators have is to make their schools places where students can learn. Sitting back and allowing their authority to be eroded by drug-related activities such as those described at McKinley is to abdicate all responsibility. For now, the most severe penalty allowed is a 10-day suspension, and that is not tough enough. The school board can give these administrators the best tool they could have: the ability to expel students involved in drug activity. Kick the pushers out of the schools.