Each June, Charles Savedge braces for the inevitable.

"Every year we seem to hear about some incidents where students who were trying be funny or cute slipped an off-color remark into {a high school} yearbook," said Savedge, past president of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and author of several guidebooks on yearbook publishing.

"A yearbook is meant to be a document that becomes more precious over time. And a hurtful phrase or remark can really ruin that for a student," added Savedge, who has judged national yearbook competitions for more than a dozen years.

The controversy over the publication of racial slurs and obscene remarks in the Bowie High School 1990 yearbook follows several recent cases elsewhere in which yearbook pranks prompted widespread anger and costly litigation.

For example, in Texas, the parents of a McAllen High School freshman sued their school district in May after the yearbook caption under their daughter's name was altered to include the word "slut." In suburban Boston, a former Westwood High School student sued his school district in 1988 when the words "superjew" and "yidmaster" were printed beside his yearbook photo. The next year a racial epithet followed by the word "lover" was inserted under a girl's senior portrait in nearby Taunton, Mass.

And Frank Gagliardi, a former student at Moon Valley High School in Arizona, received a $4,500 out-of-court settlement from the Glendale Union High School District in 1986 when his name was replaced with the word "quitter" under a picture of the wrestling team. Gagliardi, who sat out the season because of a sprained neck, said he "would never be able to look back fondly on the yearbook of his junior year in high school without being reminded of {the} unfortunate incident."

Although the lawsuits seek damages to offset hurt feelings or a sullied reputation, few if any address the question of the yearbook adviser's role in guarding against publication of inappropriate remarks or photographs, said Edmund Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, based at Columbia University in New York. The association judges national yearbook competitions.

John A. Murphy, school superintendent for Prince George's County, maintains that the blame in such cases rests with the yearbook adviser. Murphy suspended without pay Donald Watson, Bowie yearbook adviser for the last 3 1/2 years, after two senior portraits were underscored with obscene phrases that were spelled backward or irregularly spaced.

Watson, whose dismissal hearing is scheduled for Aug. 15, said he should not be held responsible for the printed slurs because he did not have enough assistants to proofread the book thoroughly.

Since Watson's suspension, school officials have discovered other obscene remarks and questionable photos in Bowie yearbooks dating back to 1985. These include photographs of students drinking beer, derogatory references to gay men and female anatomy, and a photograph in which "erotic freedom" is printed across the crotch of a female student wearing silky lingerie.

Experts on student publications say such photographs are part of a trend in which yearbooks reflect a societal shift in what constitutes acceptable behavior. "The general level of language use, physical gyration and the level of undress that kids see on television and in the movies encourages them to think that raciness is okay," press association director Sullivan said. "The question then is whether the adviser should monitor good taste."

Yearbook advisers are rarely reprimanded when obscenities slip into student yearbooks, according to experts on student publications and school law.

However, in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school districts are responsible for guarding against obscenities or offensive remarks and photographs in student publications because they are considered part of a school's curriculum.

"What Hazelwood changes is that administrators must stand up for standards even if the adviser doesn't," Sullivan said.

The Prince George's Board of Education is reviewing yearbooks from its 20 high schools with the goal of establishing standards that will prevent incidents such as the one at Bowie. Those standards will likely ban the practice of allowing seniors to submit statements to accompany their portraits. Northwestern High School in Hyattsville eliminated the senior statements after offensive remarks slipped into the 1989 yearbook, a school official said.

"Any kind of copy submitted by students outside the yearbook staff is unadvisable because it invites the kind of thing that we have seen in Bowie," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Law Press Center in Washington. "The plain fact is that somebody gets defamed."