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Substitute Teacher Granted New Trial in Porn Case

A former Connecticut middle-school teacher was granted a new trial today at her sentencing hearing, where she had faced up to 40 years in prison for exposing her students to pornographic material on a classroom computer.

Judge Hillary Strackbein said 40-year-old Julie Amero was entitled to a new trial "because a witness the state presented as a computer expert, a Norwich police detective, provided 'erroneous' testimony about the classroom computer," according to the Hartford Courant.

"This is a case of a little bit of knowledge being too much," Amero's attorney, William Dow III told Security Fix. "The state's witness was not qualified to offer the opinions he did and further examination by the state showed that the witness was just wrong. Thankfully, the judge understood that."

Critics of the state's handling of the investigation and subsequent trial point to injustices that were revealed after Amero had been convicted. For example, the school district's IT director said after her conviction that the incident likely could have been prevented if the school had renewed its Web site content filtering software. It was outdated at the time of Amero's alleged porn surfing.

The defense's key witness, a forensics expert who had examined the PC Amero was using in the Norwich middle-school classroom, was barred from presenting his technical evidence during the trial. There also was the prosecution's admission that it had failed to conduct any scan of the computer's hard drive with anti-spyware software.

The prosecution had presented testimony from 10 of Amero's students that she actively was surfing adult Web sites on the computer. Detective Mark Lounsbury cited time-stamped logs on the machine showing adult-themed images and Web pages accessed by the Web browser at the time she was in the classroom as proof that someone had intentionally visited the sites by clicking on a link or typing the address into the Web browser bar.

Amero's attorneys argued that her students saw porn as a result of pop-up ad-serving spyware that was on the machine before she came to class that day. Amero said she'd been instructed by the homeroom teacher not to turn off the machine for any reason. Amero testified that when she approached school administrators about the pop-ups, she was told by other teachers to ignore them, as they were a common annoyance.

A transcript of the trial is available in the "related articles" sidebar of this Norwich Bulletin story.

The case raises some important concerns. First, most public school systems do not properly lock down their PCs to prevent students and teachers from maliciously or inadvertently installing computer software.

Also, few school systems train their teachers and administrators on what to do when they lose control over a computer gone haywire, said Nancy Willard, an educator and author of the book Cyber Safe Kids, Cyber Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly.

Willard said schools place too much faith in Web site filtering software, which can do little to block adult-themed pop-ups generated by invasive adware and spyware programs.

"There is this misperception that filtering software is a totally effective solution that gives schools a false sense of security," Willard said. "So, in this case, there followed a series of steps by [school administrators] to try to take the blame away from the school when what really should have been focused on was the teachable moment," namely that they needed to do a better job securing the machines.

The Amero scandal has garnered worldwide coverage from bloggers to the mainstream media, much of it largely unflattering to Connecticut's prosecutors and legal system. The judge in the case today criticized bloggers who covered the trial, saying they tried to "improperly influence" the court, according to the Courant story.

Jack Malone, a state lawmaker representing Connecticut's 47th assembly district, which includes Norwich, called the case an embarrassment for the state. "I don't know how it ever got this far," he told Security Fix.

Malone added that his office has received dozens of e-mails from people around the world who expressed exasperation and disbelief at the outcome of the trial.

"The overriding sentiment of those e-mails is 'How could you possibly prosecute someone for this kind of error?' Frankly, it makes us look like real hard-liners on the social issues, and I think most folks would agree that stands in contrast to the kind of state we are and the kind of philosophy we have here."

Walt LeBaron, a former educator from New York, said he was surprised that none of the teachers' unions had spoken out in opposition to the prosecution of Amero.

"Sure, as a [substitute], Julie was not a member of those unions, but the final outcome of this trial is going to affect all teachers," LeBaron said in an interview Monday.

I contacted the Connecticut Education Association, but the group declined to comment. Yet educators have been closely - and nervously - watching this case.

When I wrote about Amero's conviction in January, an anonymous commenter left this message on the blog: "I'm surprised at the grammar of all these comments. It's surprisingly good." Initially, I chuckled but otherwise dismissed that comment, until I began to hear via e-mail from some of the people who'd been carrying on a rather anxious conversation in the comments section of that blog post. It turns out that many of the most vocal were teachers or spouses of educators.

LeBaron said that under the circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for teachers in Connecticut to just turn off their computers, refuse to use them, and leave them off until they get proper training.

State Rep. Malone echoed that sentiment, adding that he, too, is worried about the long-term effects of the case.

"I envision some teacher is going to walk into their classroom and say, 'Nope, not me. Open your books and turn off the computers. These are dangerous things, and I'm not losing my career over it.'"

By Brian Krebs  |  June 6, 2007; 1:49 PM ET
Categories:  From the Bunker  
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