WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 1996, 12:00 AM


IT'S not a flashy story, a sexy story or a story about a celebrity. It is, however, an important story one of those small, complicated sagas that says more about us than you might think at first glance. That the story, "Expletive Deleted," turns up tonight at 8 on NBC News' "Dateline" is an encouraging sign for the often sensationalistic program. That producer Tim Gorin and correspondent Bob McKeown do it justice is downright admirable. "Expletive Deleted" tells the story of a highly regarded career public-school teacher, Cissy Lacks, who was fired from her job at a high school in the suburbs of St. Louis. The school board said she had violated a district disciplinary policy against students' use of profanity. The words that cost Lacks her job she is suing her former employer appeared in written and video-taped assignments turned in by students in her creative-writing class. Lacks insists that the policy should not apply to academic classroom instruction that is supervised by a teacher. If students used such language in the course of in-class conversation, Lacks tells McKeown, she would bounce them out immediately. But the same words, used in an assignment to write and produce dramatic pieces that reflect elements of students' personal lives, are acceptable, she maintains. McKeown and producer Gorin do a decent and evenhanded job of laying out the basic conflict between teacher and administration over interpretations of school policies. But they go further and deeper than the issue of academic freedom. They also probe highly sensitive questions of race and political correctness that may well have played a significant role in the dispute. Lacks is white; most of the students at her former high school are black. The principal is black; the school board president is white. "Dateline" suggests that the principal, who declined to be interviewed by NBC, may have felt that the white teacher's assignment led black kids to turn in dramatic pieces that, however honest and heartfelt, demeaned their race. The students interviewed, however, strongly disagree. It's a provocative and complex matter, and Gorin, McKeown and their colleagues to their credit manage to shed light on it.