Students had been handing out copies of the George Marshall High School yearbook for less than four hours last week when Principal Joe A. Michael came across a full-page ad placed by seven students who call themselves the Reptiles.

It wasn't the half-page photograph of the Reptiles -- described by students at the Fairfax County school as "great practical jokers" -- that caught Michael's eye. It was the series of phrases printed with it, including one that questioned one student's sexuality and another that commented on a girl's breasts.

"It was obscene. Crazy stuff," Michael said.

He immediately banned further distribution of the yearbooks, convened an emergency meeting of the publication's staff and Student Council officers, and finally ordered the ad slashed out of all remaining yearbooks with razor blades.

His action came too late to stop an estimated 400 students from getting uncensored copies of the blue-bound "Columbian" yearbooks, but it did leave the book's remaining, 1,100 purchasers with an abbrevaited, 271 1/2 page version. While no one at the school, located on Leesburg Pike near Tysons Corner, has protested the principal's action, accusations were flying about how the censorship was handled and who was responsible for allowing the ad to run in the first place.

Micahel blamed the yearbook staff. The staff cautiously pointed to their faculty adviser, who supposedly had the final job of proofreading. The adviser said someone must have slipped the ad past her. And the Reptiles, who were refunded half their $200 ad fee, say school officials, not their club, were to blame.

"However you look at it, it comes back to the principal and the sponsor. They didn't look at it," said Reptile Ben Schlessinger, a Marshall senior, who boasted that the original Reptile ad was even racier.

"It was really bad before," agreed yearbook editor Mary Ryland, who said she modified the ad.

Janet Leslie, a Marshall teacher and the yearbook's adviser, said the volume of work associated with the publication must have overwhelmed her, allowing the ad to get to the printers unnoticed. "I never saw the ad and I never saw a page proof for that page," she said.

Some students complained the razor's edge was too drastic an action for books they plan to keep a lifetime. "I felt the administration should have inked out the four objectionalbe lines instead of cutting out a portion of the page," complained senior Greg Miller, who paid $18.50 for his censored yearbook.

School officials however, say inking, out the offensive lines was not practical. "You're talking about almost 1,500 copies of the yearbook," said Leslie. "I would have preferred to cross out the lines, but that just wasn't feasible.This place is crazy on yearbook day. The kids would have found the yearbooks and stolen them."

With just five days of school left, the ad has become an episode that yearbook staffers and school officials say they are anxious to forget.I wish it [the yearbook] would be remembered for its merits instead of this ad," said editor Ryland.

Why did the Reptiles by the ad in the first place?

"Arrogance as much as anything, says Schlessinger, who claims he would do it again, given the opportunity. "We thought it was a good idea to put something in the yearbook to remember us by . . . . I don't think the faculty will forget us soon."