In Prince George's County, public school students are expelled automatically for carrying weapons or selling drugs. In District of Columbia schools, expulsions are forbidden and the maximum penalty for those or any other misdeeds is a 10-day suspension.

Other school systems in the Washington area fall between these two extremes, but the issue of how to balance the rights of accused wrongdoers with those of administrators, teachers and students who want safe, orderly schools has been a difficult one in many schools for almost two decades.

Wilson High School Principal Michael Durso dramatized the issue last week by saying he would stay away from school because a student accused of raping a classmate was allowed to return to Wilson.

Durso returned to work yesterday, and was greeted by both praise and boos from students.

Even before Durso's protest, many D.C. principals expressed dissatisfaction with school board rules curbing the punishments they can mete out and limiting their control over transfers and suspensions.

Last fall, D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie recommended reinstating expulsions and giving principals a stronger hand in school discipline. But the proposal has been softened as it has moved through a board committee. It still awaits board action.

"I think many principals feel frustrated in not being able to suspend for more than 10 days," said George H. Margolies, the school system's legal counsel. "Some of them feel that they don't want to go through all that trouble of following board-mandated procedures if that's all they can do."

One consequence of the restrictions is that D.C. school officials are more likely to call on police to handle fighting and other problems that the school administrators might address themselves, several principals said.

"There are police in all the secondary school buildings every day," said one D.C. principal, who asked not to be identified. "And we use them. Maybe we're sending some things to juvenile court that shouldn't be going there. But now that's the best we can do."

In the District, the only students who can be kept out of public school for more than 10 days are those sent by the courts to juvenile detention facilities or prison.

One of the major changes proposed by McKenzie was to limit the power of independent hearing examiners to overturn suspensions or stop transfers requested by principals. A hearing examiner overturned Durso's order that the student accused of rape had to attend another school.

That decision prompted Durso to stay away from school. Under the current rules, the hearing officers' action is the school system's final decision.

Under the proposed changes, hearing examiners' decisions could be appealed to the deputy superintendent, who would make a final decision for the school system.

Most of the suburban school systems and Baltimore schools also use hearing examiners. But in disciplinary cases, the examiners have the power only to make recommendations, which are then acted upon by the superintendent or school board.

"I think the District has the most complete set of due process procedures of any jurisdiction I could find," said Pollie McElroy, the school system's associate legal counsel.

All of the suburban school systems provide for suspensions of different periods of time, usually up to one school year. In most, the principals themselves can suspend students no longer than five days. Beyond that, approval at a higher level of authority is required.

Even though expulsions are permitted in all local school systems except the District, there is a wide disparity in how often this sanction is used. For example, Prince George's County schools expelled 179 students last year, while Montgomery County expelled only three.

Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said expulsions are seldom used around the country, although most school systems permit them.

In most places, she said, a student can be suspended from regular classes for offenses committed outside school if the student is deemed dangerous to others. Until Friday, when the District school board adopted a rule permitting immediate transfer of those accused of criminal offenses, the D.C. schools' discipline policy allowed officials to discipline students only for incidents that occurred on school grounds, on school buses, or during school trips or athletic events.

"You have to be very careful how you deal" with offenses outside of school, Gregory said. "You get into a very ticklish legal situation."

Many of the city's disciplinary rules date from the late 1960s, when a majority of school board members emphasized the rights of students accused of wrongdoing.

The movement toward light discipline crested in May 1969, when the school board banned all expulsions and suspensions at the urging of board member Julius Hobson Sr. until "alternative discipline procedures" could be established.

Over the next two days, according to newspaper accounts at the time, students "celebrated gleefully" in several schools, setting off firecrackers, squirting foam from fire extinguishers, cutting an auditorium curtain, and tossing milk and Jell-O around a lunchroom. The disorder prompted teacher walkouts at three junior high schools and a strong protest from the Washington Teachers Union that teachers' "hands were tied."

At an emergency meeting, the board ended the brief ban, but said that principals must hold hearings themselves on the suspension if students or parents requested one. The procedures were changed several times before the current policy was adopted in 1977. It bars expulsions, limits suspensions to 10 days for a sharply defined list of offenses and allows students to get a hearing for any suspension of more than two days or for an involuntary transfer.

The hearing procedure was developed from a 1972 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph C. Waddy, which mainly concerned handicapped children. Waddy ruled District schools must follow due process in disciplinary cases, as well.

To comply with the Waddy decree, which school officials deplored but never appealed, the board established the system of independent hearing examiners, mostly attorneys, who are hired to decide particular cases.

According to D.C. school board figures, about 960 students were suspended from three to 10 days during each of the last two school years. Almost half the cases were appealed to a hearing officer. Even though about seven-eighths of the suspensions were upheld, more than half of these were reduced in length.

Robert Burch, the head of the student hearing office, said there were only 52 involuntary transfers over the past two years. Of the 32 that were challenged in hearings, Burch said the school system was upheld only 14 times.