When George Rutherford, principal of Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center off Benning Road SE, drives around the neighborhood late at night, he sees on the streets a disturbing number of pupils from his school.

"It is worse than ever," said Rutherford, whose school covers kindergarten through eighth grade. After evenings of hanging out on the corners until after midnight, "the children are not bright and alert in the morning, and by afternoon, a number of them are dozing off."

One recent night, more than 40 young people ranging in age from 13 to 17 spent time hanging out on the corner of Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue SE -- as late as 1 a.m. They talked, waited to use one of the six pay phones, ducked into a video game parlor or a nearby carryout, or just stood and watched the fancy cars go by.

"I have to be in at 11 on week nights," one sixth grader said at 12:30 a.m. "That's too early, man."

The 13-year-old said he routinely defies his mother's rule by staying out until 2 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends. "I got to get out to get something to eat. I go to the go-go. I got to make my money." His mother could not be reached at the phone number the boy supplied.

The scene is repeated in many sections of Washington on almost any night -- on the commercial strips of Georgetown, along Benning Road NE, in the alleys of the James Creek project in Southwest. Hours after their parents expect them home, high school, junior high and even some elementary school children are out. Some of them are up to no good, involved in drugs or crime, but most are simply out with friends, blocks away from troubled homes, light years away from their studies.

The late hours of inner-city children have become a tough, emotional issue in the District and around the country. School administrators say late hours lead directly to poor achievement. Residents say noise, vandalism and rowdiness rob them of sleep. Parents and teachers want the city to do something.

One answer -- adopted by Los Angeles, Detroit and several other cities -- is a curfew, a time at which all minors must be off the streets. Washington hasn't reached that point yet; a bill now before the D.C. Council would put the onus on businesses, not the police, by closing nightclubs -- such as the go-gos that feature the percussive music that has attracted many school-age children -- at 11:30 p.m. weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Mayor Marion Barry and seven council members, a majority, support the measure.

But even that idea draws fire from teen-agers, some parents and club owners. They say closing the go-gos would solve nothing; young people would simply disperse into the streets, possibly making more trouble.

Whatever the solution, youths are staying out later and later, with troubling results.

"The later they stay out, the greater the chance that they will not excel," said Helena Jones, principal of Roper Junior High School in the Deanwood section of Northeast. "And it is wrong to assume that the parents know their children are out. Many parents work at night or go to sleep early because of work hours. Their children slip out and no one knows."

One 15-year-old girl, for example, said she spends late evenings with a group of friends who hang around Alabama Avenue and Congress Park. "My mother can't say nothing," the high school student said in an interview after 1 a.m. the other day. "I stay out as long as I want. I have my own key and my mother doesn't even know it."

She pulled the key out of her pocket and showed it to a group of five friends. The 15-year-old said she is always on time for school at 9 a.m.

"I'm not tired," she said. "I only need a little sleep."

She said she and her friends stay out late -- often until 2 a.m. on week nights, " 'cause we have fun. Everybody can't come inside the house. There's no room. And we have our rights, you know." That included the right to keep her nocturnal fun a secret from her mother, she said, refusing to give her mother's name or phone number.

"The later the better," said a senior standing in a parking lot outside a carryout after 1 a.m. "My mother says I have to be in at 10. I show up and tell her I'm at the game room. Then I stay right here," he said. "Yeah, she's angry, but nobody around here is going in." His mother could not be reached for comment.

The late-hours issue is more complex than what the teen-agers see as their right to socialize. It is a reflection of the tension between parents' responsibility to supervise their children and the government's obligation to educate the young and protect the safety of all.

"Sure, kids have a right to have a good time," said D.C. Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who proposed earlier closing hours for the city's popular go-go dance spots. "But people in the neighborhoods also have a right to a decent night's sleep. There are a lot of adults here who are not taking responsibility for their children. Those parents need to go out at 3 or 4 in the morning and see the 10- or 12-year-olds hanging out with drug dealers brazenly standing there with their Mercedeses and jewelry.

"If the parents won't do anything about it, the fact is we have many rules that affect young people, whether it's about driving, marriage or alcohol use. The government has a role in this, to protect the people."

Although Smith is not ready to support a curfew, he said that time may come. "I did not add that to my bill because I am not in favor of putting more young black men in jail," he told teen-agers at a recent community forum. "I care about you, and I want you to grow up smart and healthy, and you can't do that by staying up all night."

Thomas Doles of Woodbridge in Northeast, who has children ages 8 and 15, said the sight of children on the streets late at night "is disgusting. The parents either don't care or they're doing the same thing. When you see children of 15 with $30,000 cars of their own, the parents have to know what's going on." Doles said he sets firm curfews for his two children; when they are out, he said, he knows exactly where they are.

However, Marie Whitfield of Northwest allows her 17-year-old son to stay out at go-gos, often until 3 a.m. or later. "The go-go is a clean, wholesome place for kids to have fun," she said. "Kids have to have a place to go."

The increasingly late hours kept by city teen-agers became a political issue this year after a series of violent incidents that erupted as hundreds of teens left go-gos in the early morning. Eleven people were shot in a drug-related incident outside the Acacia Masonic Hall in Northwest. Several shootings and stabbings led to calls to close Celebrity Hall on upper Georgia Avenue.

Opponents of the proposal for earlier club hours say Smith's approach blames the victims. "Young people don't import drugs to D.C.," said Charles Stephenson, spokesman for a group of go-go entrepreneurs. "Adults do. This is a total community problem and needs to be addressed as such."

Many teen-agers say going to after-midnight go-gos became a custom because it is fun to stay up late. But some students, such as Dara Jackson of McKinley High School, are perplexed.

"I have a curfew," said Jackson, 16. "I can't go out that late. Why do the go-gos start so late if they're meant for young people?"

Much of the blame for the increasingly late hours kept by many children lands on parents and the drug culture.

Calvin Woodland, a youth sports organizer in Southeast, said, "Kids are surviving for themselves. Parents say, 'I want you in the house by 10,' but then they're not there themselves at 10. Things have gotten so different, and it traces back to drugs. Where can you go where kids aren't dealing drugs? Of course, they're not all dealing drugs, but the drugs are around, and that's the atmosphere."

That atmosphere was palpable one night among a group of Johnson Junior High School students standing along the sidewalks near the Frederick Douglass Dwellings in Southeast, calling out to drivers of new BMWs, Cherokees and Porsches that slowly cruised the neighborhood.

"We have to be outside 'cause this is where the war is happening," said a 16-year-old youth. "The New Yorkers and Jamaicans are coming in here, trying to take over the boat business." "Boat" is a street term for PCP, Washington's most popular illegal drug.

The youth said his mother allows him to stay out until 1 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends.

Asked what they did all evening, several youths reached into their jackets and took out large wads of cash, which they waved at a passing police patrol car. The youths laughed.

Three of them took beepers out of their pockets. Drug dealers often use minors as carriers because juveniles face less severe penalties if caught selling drugs, and the dealers often communicate with their runners by electronic paging devices.

"They put young boys out on the street," a sixth grader said. "This is business. A $50 package of boat gets me $100; $100 gets me $200. I make money the easy way. I earn it."

"Yeah, we're tired of living in shacks," the 16-year-old said. "We want money."

The two youths jumped off the sidewalk and broke into an impromptu rap: "I was walkin' down the street/Don't go inside/Don't go inside."

School board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8) has a front-row view of teen-agers' late-night activities. Several nights a week, he is awakened by youths hanging out in a park across the street from his house.

"The kids have nothing to do, so it's easy for them to get into illegal activities," Lockridge said. "When they break up from the go-go at 3 in the morning, they come over to our place to continue their drinking and smoking and whatever."

Lockridge proposes more organized recreational activities and higher expectations of parents. And he wouldn't mind a curfew, a statement few other school board members are ready to make.

School board President R. David Hall (Ward 2) suggests adding more home study centers -- quiet, supervised neighborhood settings where children can do their homework -- and pushing for more parent involvement in the schools.

"What good is a curfew if the parents aren't doing anything for the children when they're at home?" Hall said. "It's impossible for us to take a kid in and accomplish something if he's been out till 3 in the morning. He's dropped out mentally even if he's in class on time."

But parental supervision has become more lax in recent years, many residents contend.

"Kids stay out much later now than even five years ago," said Darryl Fersner, 26, a Southeast resident and Ballou High alumnus. "It's all the drugs out there, the fancy cars, the whole thing."

"Here in the projects, if you don't have too much attention from the family, if the kid's out on the street making money and he's giving some to Mom, she doesn't care about the hours," said Rodney Manning, 20.

Chatting away a cool night in front of the Anacostia library on Good Hope Road, the men said they would not have liked it a few years ago, when they were adolescents, but today they favor a curfew for youngsters. "It's the only answer," Fersner said.

Not far away, a group of high school girls heading home from Congress Park had a surprising reaction to the curfew concept.

"It should be a 10 o'clock curfew," the 15-year-old girl said at 1 a.m., moments after delivering a rousing defense of how much fun it is to stay out late. Why the contradiction?

"I don't know," she said. "I'm not going inside, but if you have to, and everybody else does, then you just do it."