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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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January162007

Teacher Faces 40-Year Prison Sentence Because of Filtering Folly?

In a case that’s receiving scant national attention, a substitute teacher has been convicted of exposing students to online pornography, which she claims appeared on the screen due to spyware. Is this merely the case of a rogue educator, or a nightmare come to life for a substitute teacher trying to make ends meet?

On January 5th, 40-year-old Julie Amero was convicted on four counts of exposing a minor to injury. Prosecutors successfully argued that Amero had used a classroom computer for accessing pornographic sites that were seen by students. She now faces four decades in prison.

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t particularly cut and dry, because Amero argues that the images in question were due to spyware that had been installed on the computer. Spyware are secret programs that install themselves on personal computers after a user unwittingly visits a website designed to spread the spyware. These programs can cause various things to happen, from filling your windows with pop-up advertising to tracking your keystrokes. It’s nefarious stuff, no doubt - precisely the kind of software you would want to block at a school.

It seems, though, that the school wasn’t monitoring its PCs for spyware. Complicating matters is the fact that their filtering software wasn’t functioning the day Amero subbed in that classroom. Amero also claims she didn’t access the porn on purpose and reported it to school administrators.

The Norwich Bulletin newspaper has been covering the trial for several months, including the day last October she took the stand in her own defense:

“The pop-ups never went away,” Amero said. “The computer was completely covered with pornography.”

Computer expert W. Herbert Horner, who performed a forensic examination of the computer for the defense, said Amero may have been redirected to the sexually-oriented sites through a hairstyling site accessed from the computer. He said the site allowed spyware to be downloaded onto the computer which allowed the pop-ups. “If you try to get out, you’re trapped,” Horner said.

Rebutting the claims, Norwich Police Det. Mark Lounsbury, who investigates computer crimes, said there was evidence that someone had directly accessed several sexually-oriented sites by clicking on a link. State prosecutor David Smith also questioned why Amero didn’t simply shut off the computer. “You made the choice to allow this situation to happen as opposed to turning it off,” Smith said.

Amero also testified she had told at least four teachers and the assistant principal at the school about the problem, but received no help.

So here’s a scenario of what might have happened. Amero uses the computer in a way that triggers the spyware, causing a cascade of porn. She tries to close them, but this triggers even more porn to open on her screen, all of which is witnessed by students. Believing she could solve the problem, she keeps trying to close the content, clicking more links in the process, all as students continue to watch. For a teacher, this must have been a horrifying situation, and I could imagine her beginning to panic, struggling to stop the porn. If it were me, would I have simply pulled the plug? Probably, but who knows when you’re in the middle of such a disturbing moment.

Despite this plausible scenario, prosecutors managed to win the day. Her lawyers have complained that they were not able to introduce all of their evidence in court, and will use it in her appeal. Meanwhile, experts from across the Internet are flocking to Amero’s defense, arguing she was railroaded by school administrators and prosecutors eager to appear tough on online predators.

Who is right and who is wrong? Obviously, I wasn’t in the courtroom, nor was I in the classroom that day, but from the information that’s appeared in the media so far, I’m rather skeptical of the merits of the conviction. On at least two different occasions I can personally recall witnessing colleagues accidentally opening a website due to a mistyped URL and having their screen filled with a torrent of porn. (Try going to the official White House website and typethe wrong domain name; you’ll see what I mean.) It was terribly embarrassing, of course, but we could laugh it off, turn the page and move on.

In a school, though, it’s not that simple, since the witnesses of accidental porn storms could be students, as was the case with Amero. I find it very doubtful that she was waiting for the day when the school’s porn filter would suddenly fail so she could use the opportunity to evangelize her students on the merits of adult-oriented materials. There’s nothing in her 12-year teaching record that would suggest otherwise. And even if this were true, why would she report it to her superiors?

Something has gone terribly wrong here - and a woman faces 40 years in prison because of it. -andy

PS - today’s column is the last one to be edited by my colleague Drew Saunders, who is leaving PBS this week. Please join me in wishing Drew the best of luck, and a profound thanks for all of his help in editing learning.now. Thanks, Drew! -ac

Filed under : People, Policy, Safety

Responses

I’m surprised that the defense wouldn’t have any students testify as to the behavior and demeanor of the teacher. Of course depending on the age of the students it is not always the best idea to put them on the stand.

This also speaks to the unreliability of jurors. Iím sure that anyone with knowledge of firewalls, spyware, or even the internet was eliminated from the jury pool.

I know how she feels because I work with students and use a laptop. Porn has also “popped” up on it. Sounds like administration did not back her up at all. The administrators should have proven that they had the best defense against spyware possible. I hope she gets out of this. Internet use is wonderful but with all good things, there is always a caveat. Once I reported it, somehow the site was suddenly closed down.

This is crazy. Does this particular substitute teacher have a record of such behavior (porn)? She received a harsher prison sentence than actual molestors, rapists and murderers. This should be investigated further and the sentence should be dropped. Who pressed these charges against her and why? Where is the follow up on the school administration? Why aren’t they charged? It was their computer, firewalls, security (lack of) etc. Who used this computer prior to the substitute? Did they check logins and site visits from the prior user? Ok, I am now off my soapbox.

Just to clarify, she hasn’t been sentenced to 40 years. She faces 40 years - that’s the maximum allowed on her conviction. It’s the judge’s decision on how to sentence her. I wonder if the judge reads blogs. -andy

Hi again…. I just posted a followup column about this case. It talks about the blogosphere’s reaction to her conviction, which so far has been overwhelmingly critical of the jury’s decision. -andy

I had been working as a substitute. It is a very difficult work. Besides, any permanent person at school, even if it is a clerk without high school diploma, has a power over you. As he/she has a permanent position, she/he has also the support of someone with power in the school. Poor substitute, I have a lot of compassion for her. And this idiotic porn accusation is usualy having no sense, and used to pure some dirt on the person, who has the obvious disadvantage protecting himself/herself. Real sexual preditors are usually relatives or spouses of someone with top power, and they always have permanent and comparatively well paid positions.

I can tell here my story in Champaign -Urbana school districts’ substituting. I used to work as a substitute for almost ten years in different school districts of Illinois and even California. I have two teaching certificates from both of these states, enabling me to be a permanent high school teacher. My husband, accompanying whom I used to travel all over the country for a number of years, got laid off here, in Champaign-Urbana.
Because of that I started to try to get a permanent full time position in Champaign Public School district, where I was already employed, as a part time substitute. So, I was okay when I worked part time and didn’t want full time position, but when I applied for one, the administration didn’t hesitate to pour as much dirt on me in writing as it was only possible, discussing in official papers my breast size, and similar issues. I filed lawsuit in Urbana Federal Court, stating discrimination in employment, and defamation of character. But, though I was fully right, according to existing employment’s laws and all corresponding legal regulations, I lost the case, as the judge ignored all these laws and regulations in my case. The most interesting part of the story is the fact that Champaign students’ performance in math standardized tests has been declining, but, currently, my book to prepare to math ACT and SAT tests, which I published, while locked here, in Champaign - Urbana, and presented to Urbana Free Library, is currently in higher demand by students than any other pertinent manual on the topic. So, what I am trying to say is that the Champain District administration, especially principal of Centennial High School Judy Wiegland, didn’t hesitate to pour all kind of dirt on the unprotected substitute, not minding that the pleasure to do it caused her the failure of the majority of her students on standartized tests (or, maybe, even intentionally provoking this failure).
I think that my story is the good illustration for the story in discussion, isn’t it? It is illustrating also some other things, isn’t it?

“Rebutting the claims, Norwich Police Det. Mark Lounsbury, who investigates computer crimes, said there was evidence that someone had directly accessed several sexually-oriented sites by clicking on a link.”

This guy must not be too sharp to not understand how links work. Links can be accessed by spyware and pushed into the cache on your computer. This would make them appear to have been clicked.

The school district’s content filter may have been functioning properly as well. Spyware can use many different means to bypass filtering software/hardware.

I personally have seen pornographic pop-ups come up on student computers while they access music through Windows Media Player’s online library. The teacher should have turned off the monitor and alerted the building administration so that the technology staff could have addressed the situation. When there are “organizations” out there like Peacefire (www.peacefire.org) teaching people how to circumvent filtering software that is mandated by the Child Internet Protection Act (there are strings attached) the only method of stopping the “bad guys” is to let technology staff analyze the issue and find a resolution.

It seems to me that nobody was doing their job that day.

Schools seem to want to trust web filters, but we all know they are fallible. I learned the hard way that Google Images were not screened by our school filter. Years ago, student typed in “belladonna” to clarify our discussion of medieval cosmetics, but the picture that popped up was clearly not a plant. I hope that, if the pop-ups were inadventent, this substitute will be let off the hook.

This is the most unfair thing I have heard about recently. It seems like a Middle Age trial conducted by ignorant people. It surprises me they didn’t add witchery charges to this poor teacher. There is absolutely nothing wrong in her behavior. She did what every normal human being would have done in a similar situation try to fix the problem. On the other hand, most students have faced the same problem their teacher had, at home, playing with their computers. If someone would have had at least a little portion of brain inside the head, the case should have been dismissed at the beginning. Nobody realized she wasn’t exposing porn to the children that she was doing her best effort in order to prevent them from watching it? I am very much upset about this issue.

I had a similar incident in which I was connected to a projector, and the laptop I was using had a broken screen. The several second delay in my realizing what was actually going on felt like a year. First thing I did was freeze in horror. I thought I learned that no matter what you have to report it to a supervisor.
I did not in this instance because the bumbling admin. was already hostile towards me for asking for working equipment, in a school with “Info. Tech.” in the title, and for a Tech class that I was drafted to teach. Admin. later heard rumor of this incident and used it to harass me more. I ended up leaving the school. Glad I did, and glad that the whole thing didn’t go any further.
This woman’s story is just horrifying, and gives those who refuse to use internet tools more ammunition.

So a child molester can earn 40 days in jail, but accidental porn popups can earn 40 years in jail?

Well, why don’t you guys write the judge and tell him he is full of cow dung. I mean, I don’t understand what this police chiefs problem is, but he was dead wrong.

Unless you have a specific key stroke recording program, you can’t prove that she typed in anything, for the cache and or history merely records the site address. It doesnt prove that she typed in anything.

Her defense did a terrible job, but they were limited. All they needed to do, was go out, buy a new computer, remove the spyware protection, hook it up to the internet and type in the address she did. Just replicate what happened.

Thats all the jury would have needed to see.

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A defense fund to help with the outrageous legal bills has been set up at http://julieamer.blogspot.com/

If this happened to a Male teacher it wouldn’t be getting this much attention would it? It would a slam dunk case and he would be gone. Wouldn’t be a “common sense” task to just unplug the computer and get chewed out later? Just a thought….

It’s scary to think of a situation like this for us teachers. During lunch, my students often ask me, “can I use your computer?”. I usually say yes. After knowing this, I will be more careful about others using my computer at school.

Norwich Police Det. Mark Lounsbury, the investigator who examined the computer should be brought up on charges of false testimony. He was the prosection’s ‘computer expert’ and did not present all of the facts, as is relevant in the reversal of her conviction. If anything, when she is relieved of all charges, the police department should pickup the tab for her lawyer bills.

I have been both a substitute and a full time teacher. Being a sub you are at the bottom of the hill. you can be let go because of dress, or the powers that be dont care for you and the union gives you no support.there use to be some job security for teachers. there is none it is almost like employment at will with one false accusation can send you to prison for a very extended time. with the computer make sure no lessons are done on line just use power point the children will get less out of it but it beats going to jail

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