EASTON, MD., OCT. 9 -- The Talbot County school board is considering handing out condoms in its high schools without getting parents' approval, a proposal that has divided this Eastern Shore community and could propel it to the forefront of a national debate on teenage sexuality.

The condoms would be distributed by school nurses to students of both sexes who request them, but only after they are counseled on their choices, including abstinence.

If the plan is adopted by the seven-member school board, which is holding its second hearing on the proposal Wednesday, Talbot may become the first system in the country to distribute condoms without parental consent. A similar proposal is being considered in New York City. Contraceptives are available at three of Chicago's 70 high schools, but only after a complicated procedure that requires parental consent.

The proposal has prompted the expected debate on issues of morality and ethics and what a school's role should be when it comes to sex. But the discussion is also focusing on the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

"I prefer to call it disease control" rather than birth control, said Dr. John Ryan, the county health director, who made the proposal last month. Although condoms can be bought locally and are available free of charge through the county health department, advocates say distributing them in the schools makes it more likely that teens will use them.

The proposal has been endorsed by the Easton High School student government, by the county Parent-Teachers Association issues committee and by the chairman of the county's AIDS task force. But the school board president and several clerics are among those opposed to the idea.

"Most of the people think it's a moral issue and something the school system should not be involved in," said school board President Laura Harrison, a nurse. "We should be doing a better job of teaching the children how they can really safely avoid these diseases. That's abstinence."

School board member Susan Dillon, a private school teacher, offered a different view. "The end results {of sex} have changed," she said. "They are no longer just an unwanted pregnancy. There are far more dire consequences: AIDS."

Talbot, a county of 30,000 people, includes affluent residents of bayfront estates and pockets of rural poverty. It has two public high schools with a total of 1,014 students. In the year ended April 30, a third of the 200 people seen for venereal disease by the county health department were teenagers, a percentage that is above the state average. Two teens tested HIV-positive, a precursor of AIDS. One was an intravenous drug user, the other a sexual partner of a different intravenous drug user.

Ryan also cited a 1987-89 Johns Hopkins University study that followed students in the county's public high schools from eighth to 10th grade. According to the study, nearly 21 percent of the students had sex at least once a month in eighth grade. The percentage rose to 29.6 in ninth grade and 36.5 in 10th grade. Contraceptive use was constant at 11 percent.

"The statistics were just staggering," said Tom Farmer, president of the Easton High School student government, which voted 56 to 1 for the proposal. But the statistics have not won over those favoring abstinence.

"We need to get back to the law of God instead of the law of mankind," said Jerome Nicoloski, who has 7-year-old twin daughters and another girl, 6. "Whatever you sow into those {students'} minds is going to be harvested down the road. Until people return to abstinence prior to marriage, communicable disease is going to run rampant."

The Rev. Leo Christian, of Easton's Talbot Bible Church, decries what he sees as a shift in the schools from the teaching of abstinence to the teaching of "safe sex."

But even the clergy is divided.

"People being conservative and fundamental about this are trying to preserve a way of life," said the Rev. Harry Bainbridge, of Easton's Christ Episcopal Church. "The difficulty is that way of life has already gone by the boards and cannot be reclaimed at this point. We can't sacrifice our children for some values no longer a part of the lifestyle of this community."

At Easton High School, opinions vary. "If they give them out to children, they're just going to feel they can go out and do it," said Hope Limberry, 15, of Easton.

"They should do it," said Jennifer Brummell, 17. "Then, everybody won't get pregnant, and all that stuff."

"I think if they're distributing them, it's fine, but some won't put them to good use," said Tammy Coursey, 14. "They'll blow them up on the bus."

At the H&G Restaurant, cashier Pam Ross, 36, declared the condoms idea "nonsense." The mother of a son in the 12th grade, Ross also has a 21-year-old daughter who was born when she was 15. "Just an accident," she said. "If I was a little better educated, it might not have happened."

Schools can show how to use birth control, she said. But handing out condoms is more than she could abide. "It's like putting a piece of pie in front of you and telling you not to eat it."