An animal-rights organization has accused Newport Harbor High School students of mistreating cat carcasses intended for dissection in class and then publishing the images online.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based organization opposed to vivisection, wrote a letter to Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials last week asserting that parents were concerned about graphic photos of dismembered cat body parts appearing on Facebook.

The organization sent images of the Facebook pages to the Daily Pilot, but their authenticity could not be independently verified. One image shows a severed cat's head placed in a student's locker and others show dead cats posed with students in what looks like a classroom.

School board President Dave Brooks said the district is looking into whether the animal carcasses were indeed misused, and by whom.

Because the investigation is ongoing, Brooks could not comment about possible repercussions the students may face, if any, saying that such discussions would be premature.

Brooks said he suspected the actions were "students being students" and that none of the alleged behaviors appeared to be malicious or harmful, but that the school district is still determining exactly what happened.

In the letter, the Physicians Committee recommended that the students involved be referred for psychological evaluation, that the district interview the science teacher whose classroom used the cats for dissection, and that classroom activities using animal carcasses be suspended.

In addition to the group's objections to the graphic nature of the Facebook photos, it also took issue with some of the callous online comments about them.

"Someone put down Puss in Boots," one person wrote, and "baha yeah we dissected it" was another posted.

"Abundant medical literature shows that children who abuse animals are more likely to be abusive toward human beings later in life," the letter read. "In this context, animal abuse includes callous behavior toward animals killed for other purposes. Cats are especially common targets."

Dissecting animals creates a bad precedent for young, impressionable minds, said the committee's Dr. John Pippin.

Pippin said allowing students to misuse animals that are typically pets as part of a science curriculum sends the message that killing animals is OK.

lauren.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @lawilliams30