PHILADELPHIA — A school district outside Philadelphia halted state-sponsored assemblies about online safety after the presenter made references to al-Qaida, serial killers and child pornography during a talk to 9- and 10-year-olds.
Principal Anne Heffron said in a message to parents of fourth- and fifth-graders at Merion Elementary School in Montgomery County that Wednesday's 45-minute assembly by 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.
The attorney general's office blamed the problems on a "breakdown in communications" and said it was in discussions with the district to reschedule the Operation Safe Surf assemblies.
The agency said in a statement issued Thursday that it worked with the district over the summer to ensure the presentation met their needs, but the employee involved later left the agency.
Heffron told parents that the problematic 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 online to learn about sex offenders in their neighborhood and, during a discussion of having a cellphone for emergencies, a joking reference to "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 principal and the attorney general's office said that after the complaints Wednesday, the presentation was modified for the grades 1-3 assembly that followed.
District spokesman Doug Young said there were not many complaints, as only a handful of parents responded to the principal's email.
"Inherently, some of the content is going to be a bit unsettling, and that's the nature of the topic," Young said. "But the presentation needs to be tailored to each audience."
Young said the program helps the district comply with the federal Children's Internet Protection Act.
The agency said this year it has made Operation Safe Surf presentations to more than 43,000 people.
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pa.
Operation Safe Surf: http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/kidsparents.aspx?id1660