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