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Was Julie Amero wrongly convicted?

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Comment Substitute teacher Julie Amero faces up to 40 years in prison for exposing kids to porn using a classroom computer, but the facts strongly suggest that she was wrongfully convicted. Many issues remain, from the need for an independent computer forensics investigation and the presence of spyware and adware on the machine, to bad or incomplete legal work on both sides of this criminal case.

A recent criminal case in Connecticut points out the problems of computer forensics and aggressive law enforcement. It also points out how companies can get themselves and their employees into legal hot water by failing to take reasonable computer security procedures.

Take the case of Julie Amero, a 40-year-old substitute teacher from Windham, Connecticut. On October 19, 2004 Ms Amero, reportedly four months pregnant, was asked to substitute for Michael Napp's seventh grade language arts class at Kelly Middle School. Classrooms in this suburb of Norwich, Connecticut, apparently have PCs connected to the internet, but substitute teachers don't get passwords. Therefore, Mr Napp logged in, and stayed logged in under his UserID and password. Mr Napp logged into a few websites, and then turned the class and the computer over to Julie. He advised her not to turn off the computer, as she had no password to log back in. It wasn't the first time Amero had used a computer in the classroom. Indeed, she frequently used the computers in the classroom when she was supposed to be substitute teaching – many times in lieu of actually interacting with the 12 and 13 year old kids.

Julie Amero logged in to look at her AOL mail and, about six minutes later, either she or one of the students visited various websites about hair products or hair styles. Now one can reasonably ask why Julie was checking email, or for that matter surfing the web while she was supposed to be teaching. In fact, she spent most of the day logged on to the internet – not just logged on, but actively surfing. And why were her students allowed to be surfing internet websites about hair styles? In fact, Julie Amero had been reprimanded for not paying enough attention to the students and instead just web browsing while in class.

However, on this particular date, it appears that one of the sites that either she or one of the students browsed to had caused a series of "pop-up" ads to be displayed on the classroom computer – and displayed a series of hard-core pornographic sites. She stated that she saw a bunch of the students giggling at the screen, and saw the pornographic sites.

The substitute teacher said she immediately stepped in and shielded the children from the images, pushing them away or physically blocking them from seeing the images. As she tried to close the pop-ups down, new ones would pop-up. She walked down the hall to get the assistance of another faculty member, who advised her that there was nothing that could be done. Meanwhile, of course, the hard-core porn was popping up on the computer for all the seventh graders to see. The substitute asked one of the teachers to call for the school principal to help, but no help was forthcoming. At the end of the day, Amero reported the problem to the assistant principal, who told her "not to worry". Apparently, the incident was not seen as all that significant, and the log data indicates that Amero had continued to use the computer for the rest of the day – browsing lots of other sites, unrelated to porn. Oh yeah, and unrelated to her work as a substitute teacher. In fact, it appears that Julie continued to browse the web all day – even after the pop-up incident.

When the students told their parents what had happened, they told the administration, who vowed that Julie would never work in the classroom again. But they went further. The 40-year-old substitute teacher was arrested, indicted, tried – and here is the kicker – on January 5, 2007, she was convicted of four counts of risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-21). Indeed, she was originally charged with exposing 10 children in the seventh grade class to the materials on the internet, but six of the charges were dropped. The statute punishes "[a]ny person who...unlawfully...permits any child under the age of 16 years to be placed in such a situation that...the morals of such child are likely to be impaired, or does any act likely to impair the...morals of any such child".

Julie faces 40 years in the slammer for exposing the kids to porn. This despite the fact that a recent study by the University of New Hampshire, published in the journal Pediatrics, which indicates that 42 per cent of children ages 10 to 17 have been exposed to pornography on the internet in the last year, with two-thirds of them saying this exposure was inadvertent – due to pop-ups, bad URLs, or bad search results. Amero will be sentenced 2 March, 2007.

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