Schools, Fools and the Tools of Ignorance

Julie Amero is free at last.

If this were the 1970s, Bob Dylan might have written a song about her. Today it's geeks who came to her rescue.

Amero's "crime": In October 2004, the substitute teacher from Norwich, Conn., was surfing the Net on a computer inside a middle school classroom when porn ads began popping up all over the screen. She didn't turn the computer off, because school officials expressly told her not to. Someone reported the incident, and Amero was charged with four counts of endangering minors. In January 2007, a jury convicted Amero of surfing XXX sites in the classroom.

Amero was looking at 40 years in the slammer when geeks around the country -- most notably Sunbelt Software CEO Alex Eckelberry -- read of her verdict and immediately recognized the telltale signs of a spyware infection. They went to work on Amero's behalf, urging the judge for a retrial (which was granted in June 2007). According to Hartford Courant blogger Rick Green:

The state never conducted a forensic examination of the hard drive and instead relied on the expertise of a Norwich detective, with limited computer experience. Experts working for Amero ridiculed the state's evidence, saying it was a classic case of spyware seizing control of the computer. Other experts also said that Amero's response -- she failed to turn off the computer -- was not unusual in cases like this.... Among other things, the security experts found that the Norwich school system had failed to properly update software that would have blocked the pornography in the first place.

Amero isn't totally exonerated. She agreed to plead guilty to "disorderly conduct" (a misdemeanor), pay US$100, and have her teaching credentials revoked. The state still refuses to acknowledge it was mistaken. Lord only knows if the school ever cleaned up its computers.

Somebody needs to revoke the credentials of Norwich school administrators and prosecutors -- or at least make them stay after school and learn something about the machines they put inside their classrooms.

The larger, uglier verdict in this case is the terminal cluelessness of everyone involved -- from administrators who allowed spyware-infested computers into schools, to the DA's office, to the "expert witness" who wasn't actually an expert, to the first judge who refused to let the defense present forensic evidence on Amero's behalf, to the jury, and finally to Amero herself. All of them get an F in 21st-century survival skills.

The worst part: This didn't happen in a third-world hovel or a ghetto slum. It happened inside the educational and legal systems in one of the richest states in our country. And it's likely to happen again. Per the AP report:

New London County State's Attorney Michael Regan said Friday that the state was prepared to go to trial again, but agreed to the reduce the felony charges to a single misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct because Amero had health problems. "I have no regrets. Things took a course that was unplanned," Regan said. "For some reason, this case caught the media's attention."

Good thing it did. Otherwise, an innocent woman would be rotting in prison.

Who really should be doing time in this case? E-mail me: cringe (at) infoworld (dot) com.

This story, "Schools, Fools and the Tools of Ignorance" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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