Pa. faults 'breakdown' in Web safety lesson

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Associated Press

Posted on September 26, 2013 at 10:08 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 26 at 10:08 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Pennsylvania attorney general's office says "a breakdown in communications" caused problems with a Web safety program in a suburban Philadelphia school that raised objections from school staff.

The office issued a statement Thursday taking responsibility for the matter, a day after the event at Merion Elementary caused the principal to write parents with her concerns.

The attorney general's office says it worked with the district over the summer to ensure the presentation met their needs, but the employee involved later left the agency.

Principal Anne Heffron tells parents that some topics weren't appropriate for the 9- and 10-year-old students. Among them were that it's not OK for anyone to take pictures of naked children, and homework that directed them to the agency website's list of sex offenders.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

A school district outside Philadelphia has halted state-sponsored assemblies about online safety after one in which the presenter made references to al-Qaida, serial killers and child pornography during a talk to 9- and 10-year-old students.

Principal Anne Heffron said in a message to parents of fourth- and fifth-graders at Merion Elementary School in Montgomery County that Wednesday's assembly with staff from the attorney general's office was intended to promote the use of technology "in a safe and appropriate manner."

"While there were many worthwhile and timely topics shared with students about the use of technology, there were several comments and topics that were presented that were not age-appropriate for a 9- and 10-year-old audience," Heffron said.

She said the comments included "explaining that it is illegal for children or adults to take pictures (referring mainly to cellphones) of children with 'no clothes on.'" The presenter also asked students during a discussion of online video games how they know that the person they are gaming with "isn't a serial killer."

Other comments that caused concern included assigning "homework" for students and parents to go to the Megan's Law section of the attorney general's website to learn about sex offenders in their neighborhood and a joking reference during a discussion of having a cellphone for emergencies "defining an emergency as a kidnapping by al-Qaida."

Heffron, who apologized for any concerns caused, said most of the information was important for students to understand, but officials believe "that the assembly can and should be improved in consideration of the young audience."

The assembly in the Lower Merion School District school was the first in a series of presentations by the attorney general scheduled for all elementary schools, but remaining programs "have been put on hold so that the district can ensure that more appropriate content is delivered," Heffron said. She said the presenter "appropriately modified" his presentation for the grades 1-3 assembly following feedback on the fourth- and fifth-grade program.

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