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Computer central: Jail substitute teacher over noxious porn pop-ups?

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2007 12:35 a.m. MDT

The tale I am about to tell is so bizarre that many of you may run to Snopes (snopes.com) to make sure I am not spreading an urban legend.

It's October 2004 and a substitute school teacher named Julie Amero is in a classroom in a middle school in Connecticut when pornographic pop-ups start popping up on the classroom's PC.

If you've been near a computer more than a week you've seen this happen; someone visits a Web site that infects the PC and soon these pop-ups are happening one after another. (When it happens in rapid succession we call it a "porn storm.") Turns out the classroom's PC was running Windows 98 and had no anti-virus or anti-spyware on it.

Anyway, this teacher, who was not very familiar with computers, asked other teachers what to do about it and she was told "not to worry about it." She asked the school principal if she should turn the computer off and was told no.

But after students told their parents about the pop-ups and the parents complained, Amero, who was four months pregnant at the time, was arrested and tried for four counts of risk or injury to a minor, which carried a maximum penalty of 10 years per count.

Surely the court would realize porn pop-ups were not the fault of a substitute teacher, right? Surely a judge would realize that this Javascript infection on a wide open computer that the evidence showed came from a G-rated site about hairstyles wasn't an attempt to expose children to porn?

This is America, right?

Well, wrong. This is Jerry Springer's America.

Amero was convicted following a two-day trial that techies have derided as similar to a mock trial held in a fairly good fourth-grade classroom. And she was due to be sentenced to prison this month.

Alex Eckelberry, president of Sunbelt Software Inc., a Florida computer security company, is just one prominent techie who has taken up Amero's cause. He rightly points out that there is no evidence she had anything to do with infecting the computer and the defense had much evidence to show otherwise. It's just that no one involved in the case understood the technology of spyware very well.

I bring this up to note that Amero was not sent to jail but was granted a new trial, one that I hope never actually happens. Our tax dollars have been used for everything from studying cow flatulence to trying to convict Duke lacrosse players and, now, putting pregnant teachers in jail because they didn't know how to clean spyware off of a computer in a borrowed classroom.

If you are looking to write an e-mail or a letter, send one to the governor of Connecticut and urge them to get involved in this issue and let Amero get back to work, assuming the resulting publicity hasn't destroyed her life already.

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Read Alex's blog at sunbeltblog.blogspot.com/ for the latest on Amero's case as well as interesting developments on spyware in general.


James Derk is co-owner of CyberDads, a computer repair company, and a computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jim@cyberdads.com.

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