Prince George's School Superintendent John A. Murphy's recommendation to fire a Bowie High School teacher for failing to catch racial slurs and obscene remarks in the school's 1990 yearbook has touched off a public debate over who should be held responsible.

On one side are hundreds of teachers, parents and students who say Donald Watson, an English teacher and yearbook adviser, should not be punished because offensive remarks were submitted in code by three seniors.

The county school board will vote on whether to dismiss Watson.

School officials suspended Watson without pay last week when they discovered that two senior portraits were underscored with obscene passages spelled backward or irregularly spaced.

One picture was accompanied by a statement containing a word that spelled in reverse is a derogatory term for blacks.

Another student began his remarks with "{Expletive} Yea!" And after Watson was suspended, school administrators discovered a caption in which a male student used a sexually explicit slur to describe his female peers. All three students have been expelled and will not receive their high school diplomas during today's graduation ceremonies.

But a smaller group of Bowie parents and students maintains that the yearbook adviser and perhaps even the principal should carefully review all yearbook submissions to guard against such remarks.

"This is a permanent record of a student's experiences," said Bowie parent Donna Johnson. "Someone has to be held responsible for making sure these kind of offenses don't slip in a book that people are going to refer to again and again for the rest of their lives. It's an indelible and permanent offense."

Bowie Principal John Hagan described the yearbook incident as an "unfortunate setback" in a year in which the school has been trying to quell racial tensions that came to a head in February 1989 when black students walked out to protest racial problems at the 970-student school.

The Bowie incident has also raised larger questions about just how much scrutiny is paid to yearbooks. Hagan said several students have also complained about yearbook photos in which the word "jews" is superimposed over a picture of three girls in formal dresses and one in which a girl's head is atop a nude male torso.

"Upon close inspection I've discovered that I am uncomfortable with this book from cover to cover," Hagan said yesterday. "And what's really remarkable is that I have gotten calls from four other principals who say they have found similar things in their yearbooks." Hagan would not identify the other schools.

"Perhaps we are not reading this document as carefully as we should," said Hagan, who added that as principal he must accept part of the blame for the publication.

But Murphy maintains that the ultimate responsibility for the yearbook lies with the adviser. "This is the person who is supposed to be the watchdog for these kind of things," said Murphy, who on Tuesday declined Watson's hardship request that his salary be reinstated during his suspension because his wife, also a Prince George's teacher, has earned no salary since breaking her legs in an accident last winter.

"I have an obligation to uphold moral standards. I cannot lower those standards because I feel pressure," Murphy said.

Watson is a 20-year teaching veteran who was once Bowie's teacher of the year and in 1989 won a second-place award in Columbia University's national yearbook competition.

State law prevents school board members from discussing personnel matters, but some said privately that they were "uncomfortable" with Murphy's recommendation for dismissal.

Many Bowie students now wear buttons supporting Watson that say, "Reinstate NOSTAW" -- the teacher's name spelled backward.

"All day long people were asking me what {the button} said, even teachers couldn't figure it out," said Jocelyn Ake, 17. "If all those people can't figure it out, then how was {Watson} supposed to catch words spelled backwards and sideways?"

Bowie's teachers have collected $1,200 for Watson and are circulating a petition in support of him. And the Prince George's County Educators Association has filed a grievance against Murphy claiming that he violated the contract in announcing his plans to seek Watson's dismissal before meeting with the teacher. The union has also filed a grievance against Hagan, alleging that he publicly embarrassed Watson by reprimanding him in front of his students.

Meanwhile, school officials and students said the school's racial climate had improved greatly in recent months.

But students said friction increased after the yearbook passages were discovered. "It's really too bad because things had gotten a whole lot better," said Achilles Yeldell, 17. "This whole incident has fanned the flames of racial tension."

That tension was evident at the school yesterday in racial epithets in the graffiti in the girls' lavatory and in a white paper triangle resembling a tiny Ku Klux Klan hood that one student wore on his finger.