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Symposium addresses dangers to youth

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Donna Brown, a social worker with Frederick County Public Schools, takes notes during youth mental health symposium the sponsored by Concern Hotline at Sportsplex in Winchester on Wednesday. Alex Bridges/Daily

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Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, Virginia attorney general, speaks during a youth mental health symposium Wednesday at the Sportsplex in Winchester. Alex Bridges/Daily

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Gail Pennybacker, a reporter for ABC affiliate WJLA 7 in Washington, speaks during the wellness and safety symposium at the Sportsplex in Winchester on Wednesday. Alex Bridges/Daily

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Virginia's chief prosecutor warns that children likely know technology better than adults.

Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II addressed hundreds of people at a youth mental health symposium held Wednesday in the Sportsplex near Kernstown. The audience at "Are You Concerned? An Educational Symposium Advocating Wellness Strategies" included workers in the courts and law enforcement, schools, medical professions and other agencies.

Cuccinelli noted he "has a heart for" mental health and noted the issue differs for children and adults. Cuccinelli then focused his talk to the crowd first on Internet crimes against children, warning that while the youth remain computer savvy, so do the predators.

"It is us trying to keep up with them and to cut 'em off at the pass," Cuccinelli said. "It is something that we can never have enough manpower working on to address and to be there when every predator shows up online 'cause they're there all the time. It really takes vigilance on the part of families, parents, the children themselves and then the others in the community who can push those folks to do just that."

But society pushes children to use the Internet, join social media sites such as Facebook, and log into chat rooms, Cuccinelli said. Criminals then use these as tools for sex trafficking, child pornography and arranging liaisons with children, among other acts. Cuccinelli added that illegal gangs use the Internet and video game systems with online access to recruit members.

"So I'm here to give you a warning -- being a lawyer sometimes I say the obvious -- our kids are at risk in this environment and we need to be vigilant, too," Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli also touched on topics of "sexting" and the practice of sending pornographic images via cell phone to other people, often between youths but also involving adults with juveniles.

"They are basically promiscuous 15- or 16-year-olds kinda thing so the question is do we really want to prosecute them for that, put them on the sex [offender] registry for their whole life," Cuccinelli said.

Prosecutors have the option to pursue charges against a juvenile in such a way as to not require the person to register as a sex offender, Cuccinelli said. The sex offender registry does not apply for the youths, Cuccinelli noted.

"That is for predators," Cuccinelli said. "That's a different category. That's a parental problem, not a law enforcement problem."

Cuccinelli and Gail Pennybacker, a veteran TV news reporter with WJLA in Washington, D.C., started off the all-day symposium. People then broke off into separate sessions focused on bullying, suicide prevention, drug and alcohol abuse and "Games Kids Play," the latter of which looks at dangerous and sometimes deadly actions youth do to each other such as choking, cutting and burning.

During the question period, Erin Reeve, a nurse who works in the Winchester Medical Center's emergency department, told Cuccinelli that public school divisions don't allow medical professionals to give presentations about the dangers of these "games." Cuccinelli said the matter likely would fall to the individual school divisions to handle.

Reeve, who led a session about the games, noted that another health professional in the Tidewater area has tried to bring the presentation to schools with no success.

"The thing is that that's where it needs to be because kids need to understand that they could really die from this," Reeve said. "It's very, very dangerous."

Donna Brown, a social worker for Frederick County Public Schools, jotted down notes during Cuccinelli's address.

"I was very impressed," Brown said. "He seemed very down to earth and very committed."

Brown noted Cuccinelli told the audience about how he and his wife monitor Internet usage among their seven children -- they limit computer online access to the family room and forbid entering chat rooms and blogs.

"I think that he gave some good prevention techniques because the kids today are much more savvy with their electronics than I will ever be and, as a parent, they've got to keep check of what's going on at home," Brown said.

Prior to the sessions Bill Pifer, a board member of Concern Hotline, noted "games" drew the highest number of people out of the session topics.

"It's negative games," Pifer said. "It's stuff we have to face up to."

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