SHOULD condoms be distributed in schools?The issue is spurring debate among educators, administrators, and parents from New York to California as the nation seeks ways to stop the spread of AIDS. At least 31 states mandate that schools provide some sort of AIDS education. Several big-city districts - including New York and Philadelphia - include making condoms available as part of prevention programs. San Francisco is studying the idea. Now Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, is considering expanding its AIDS curriculum and allowing the distribution of condoms in all high schools. The move has strong support among AIDS activists, health-care workers, and others. Some religious and parent groups, though, sternly oppose making condoms available and question the educational emphasis in the classroom. "This is going to be a huge issue," says Susan Carpenter-McMillan of the Right to Life League, a lobbying group. Nationwide, the incidence of AIDS cases among adolescents is low but has been growing rapidly. The Centers for Disease Control reports that teenagers make up less than 1 percent of all AIDS cases, though the number grew by 40 percent last year. Disturbed by these statistics, educators, state lawmakers, and others have been grappling with what role schools should play in helping prevent the disease. The California Legislature, for instance, recently passed a bill that requires junior and senior high school students to receive instruction in the prevention of AIDS. Supporters say stopping the disease from becoming a teenage epidemic is essential. But opponents worry about how to present sensitive sexual matters in the classroom. They wanted a provision requiring that such instruction not be offered without parental consent. In the final version, parents who object can pull their students out of class, but no "prior consent" is required. A few urban districts believe even more than classroom learning is needed: thus the emerging debate over condoms. A task force of the US Conference of Mayors recently endorsed making condoms available in schools. It also suggested they be regularly advertised on TV. In adopting its controversial policy, New York City decided to let students receive condoms without any say by parents. Others require consent. What Los Angeles might do is uncertain. A raucus first public hearing on the subject was held last week, and other meetings are planned before a final policy is presented to the school board. At present, condoms and other birth-control devices are available to students who have parent approval at three privately funded school-based health clinics. A task force appointed by the board to help revamp AIDS education policies has recommended that every high school have a clinic to give out condoms and information on AIDS prevention and treatment. Supporters say no precaution is too much when it comes to the health of young people. In an age when children as young as 13 are sexually active, they believe teenagers should know about - and have protection against - sexually transmitted diseases. "AIDS is the biggest public health tragedy of our lives," says Susan Mitchell, a nurse at one school-based clinic. Because children may be hesitant to talk to parents about such matters, some also believe requiring parental consent would be a barrier. "If young people are having sex without their parents' permission, they should be able to have a condom," says Jeff Horton, a school board member. Critics cite studies showing that even well-informed students who have access to contraceptives engage in high-risk sexual activity. Others say providing condoms to students tacitly condones sex. They would rather see discussion of sensitive sexual matters handled in the home. "It is not up to the school to socially parent our children," says Amy Stephens of Focus on the Family, a grass-roots church group. As for AIDS education, the group favors a values-based approach that focuses heavily on abstinence - something that others consider naive when many teens are already sexually active. Thus condoms and the AIDS curriculum appear headed for an emotional showdown here - and increasingly across the nation.