WHEN the high school in Chapel Hill, N.C., opened this fall, something was missing: the condom availability program.
Only two years earlier, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board and a local parents group had worked out a compromise that would allow students to get condoms through the school, but with important limits, such as a parental ''opt out'' provision.
This summer, the North Carolina legislature finalized a major overhaul of the state's sex-education guidelines. Middle and high schools must now teach that abstinence is the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Comprehensive sex education may not be introduced into a school without a public hearing. The failure rates of contraceptives must be discussed, and no contraceptives may be distributed at schools.
North Carolina is not alone in its swing toward an abstinence-based curriculum. According to a study released this week by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), four states - North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma - have passed laws in the past two years requiring the teaching of abstinence, while not mandating broader instruction on how to prevent pregnancy and disease. South Dakota also repealed a law requiring schools to teach AIDS prevention.
In 12 other states, at least one chamber of the legislature has passed restrictive legislation on sex education.
''At a time when America leads the developed world in teen-pregnancy rates, a new and frightening trend is emerging,'' Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, told journalists. ''All over this nation, the right wing is working to prohibit comprehensive sexuality education in schools, even though our teens desperately need information and skills to postpone sexual activity and protect against disease and pregnancy.''
The issue cuts to the heart of a central debate in Washington: how to address the nation's epidemic of out-of-wedlock births and an abortion rate that ranks No. 1 among developed Western nations. Conservatives, including the politically energized Christian right, want most talk of sexuality removed from schools and left up to parents. Advocates of comprehensive sex education argue that most parents want schools to include age-appropriate discussion of sexuality and human development in their curricula, with an option for parents to remove their children from such classes.
''Comprehensive sexuality education treats sex casually; it equates it with going to the movies or any other recreational activity,'' says state Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican candidate for governor in North Carolina.
Mr. Hayes, whose pitch to voters centers on a return to traditional moral values, helped steer the abstinence-focused law through the legislature. He says the Chapel Hill-Carrboro program, the only one in the state that entailed condom distribution, was a symptom and not a cause of a broader problem in North Carolina.
''Parents didn't know what was being taught - that premarital sex and sex outside of marriage are acceptable,'' says Hayes.
Ken Touw, chairman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, disagrees that parents in his district were ill-informed. In fact, he says, the debate over condom distribution raised awareness in the community about the problem of teen sexual activity.
''The best thing out of this was the letter that went to each family about the danger of AIDS and urged parents to discuss it with their children,'' says Mr. Touw. He points out that during the condom program's two years in existence, fewer than 10 condoms were distributed each year.
Advocates of comprehensive sex education acknowledge that their position is more complicated than ''just say no.'' Theirs is a two-part message: that abstinence is the safest way to avoid disease and pregnancy, but if you do choose to be sexually active, use contraception.
It's the 'but' that concerns opponents of comprehensive sex ed. ''That's what kids pick up on,'' says Alan Belch, a board member of a Chapel Hill parents' group called Putting Children First.
Amid all the talk in Washington about ''devolution'' of decisionmaking to the local level - where, the theory goes, officials know best what's needed - the sex-ed issue represents a conflicting trend. When it was left up to the local board, Chapel Hill-Carrboro opted for a liberal solution, one that, Belch acknowledges, represented the majority view in the district. But the school board must now amend its policy according to the more-conservative state standards.
Belch thinks this is appropriate. ''It makes the state's approach uniform, so it will be less confusing for people who move within the state,'' he says. In addition, he says, educational curriculum is generally a state matter in North Carolina.