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Computer-Clueless In Connecticut

Reporter's Notebook: Norwich, Conn., is the setting for the final chapter in a trial that has turned into a travesty of law, justice and technology.

Had the technology aspect of the situation been addressed before things got out of control, a substitute teacher would not now be facing 40 years in prison after a jury convicted her of not doing enough to prevent children from seeing pornographic images on a school computer.

All she appears to be guilty of is being utterly clueless about computers.

As her sentencing approaches, let's review some of the details of the case, as reported in court testimony and local press. On the morning of Oct. 19, 2004, 38-year-old substitute teacher Julie Amero, four months pregnant at the time, was teaching at the Kelly Middle School of Norwich, Conn., a suburban city of 37,000 situated about 20 miles north of New London.

Amero reportedly left the room for a short time. When she came back, she discovered students gathered around the classroom's computer, taking in a stream of pop-up porn advertisements on the monitor. Amero then apparently tried to stop the kids from looking but didn't do what would be obvious to most of us -- shut off the monitor.

It later came out that she asked other teachers for help, but they reportedly declined, and told her it was no big deal, that it happens all the time. According to one account, the school principal told her not to shut off the computer, and the assistant principal of the school told her not to worry.

Well, she had reason to worry, then and now.

The kids went home and told their parents, who then lodged complaints. The school, in turn, promised Amero would never teach there again. She was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with four counts of felony injury to a minor, which carried a total sentence of 40 years in prison.

What about the school's responsibility to the condition of the school's computers? Why was a teacher's computer loaded with spyware? And why had the school failed to renew its firewall license? The antiquated Gateway computer was running Windows 98 with no antivirus software.

When I asked Randy Abrams, director of technical education at antivirus vendor ESET Software, if there was a current antivirus program that still worked on Windows 98, he joked: "I didn't think there were any viruses left that ran on 98."

Herb Horner, owner of Contemporary Computer Consultants, was the forensic examiner called as a defense expert witness in the Amero case. He told me Amero wouldn't even know how to turn off a monitor. "She was totally, totally dumber than dirt when it came to computers. Talk to her husband, he will tell you she knows nothing."

How could she be trained as an educator without using a computer? But she's not the only one. Horner said many teachers in other school districts were equally clueless. So was the jury in her case.

"They were zombified. They had no clue," he said.

The point of the prosecution was that she deliberately exposed the students to the porn. Ultimately, a jury felt she didn't do enough to prevent them from exposure to the pop-ups.

During the trial, Amero testified that she tried to block the kids from seeing the images by standing between them and the computer. Kids also testified to this fact.

While I can't excuse Amero's utter cluelessness about computers, this is not justification for jail. Unfortunately, there were other problems. Amero was just as lost when it came to picking a lawyer as she was in using computers. Her defense attorney, according to Horner, was in the late stages of multiple sclerosis. During cross-examination, he would start asking questions provided by Horner out of sequence.

"The judge knew [his condition], the prosecution knew it, but I didn't know how bad it was until the trial," said Horner.

I'll leave the legal ruminations to the lawyers.

Amero has appealed the sentence and has a new lawyer, all of which is documented in her blog. But sentencing is set for Thursday, March 29th.

The school's own negligence may not have been on trial here, but that it provided no firewall and an old Windows 98 computer with no antivirus protection in 2004 is a damning indictment of its own priorities with computing tools.

There probably wasn't a kid in that class who didn't have something better at home. Horner said flat out the kids in the class were far more tech-savvy than anyone else involved in the case.

"Just because a technology is available doesn't mean people use it," he said. "If people are of the right mindset, they will want to learn it or implement it so other people can benefit. It depends on the attitude of the leadership, and I think the leadership at Kelly School was really lacking."

The Norwich Bulletin, the hometown newspaper, all but convicted Amero in print and made her out to be something akin to a pedophile, claiming she was "wrong to access several pornographic Web sites on her computer at Kelly Middle School." The editorial continued with a subhead claiming "intent was apparent" and that "her deeds were disgusting and merit punishment."

What's disgusting is the ignorance on display in the Bulletin. It editorializes on how schools need to protect kids -- and ignores the fact that Kelly had outdated computers with no security software and no firewall.

Fortunately, not all of Connecticut is clueless. The Hartford Courant has railed against the verdict. "This borders on the unbelievable, including the performance of her lawyer during a two-day trial earlier this month," wrote the newspaper's Rick Green.

Julie Amero was originally scheduled to be sentenced on March 2, but she was initially granted a reprieve from that until March 29.

What we still face, however, is the root of this problem: all of America's schools, teachers, and, apparently, judges and juries need to catch up to the 21st century.

*UPDATE: On March 28, just one day before Amero was to be sentenced, Norwich Superior Court filed for a second delay, pushing sentencing back to April 26. Reasons for the delay were not given; however, with national attention being drawn to the trial, it might just be the result of mounting pressure on the state's attorney's office to drop the case.

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor in the San Francisco bureau of internetnews.com.