Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pornography in the Classroom; Justice Perverted

The story of substitute Julie Amero deserves the attention of the teacher's unions, parents, administrators and law enforcement and I mean both ears listening eyes open and paying attention.

I don't know anything about Julie Amero except that she faces a forty year term in prison for allegedly exposing children to pornography.

Here's an opinion from the Norwich Bulletin;
Norwich substitute teacher Julie Amero clearly was wrong to access several pornographic Web sites on her computer at Kelly Middle School. In October 2004, she exposed seventh-grade students to images of naked men and women. For her crimes, she is facing up to 40 years in prison.

We find that potential punishment excessive, but we do expect that this sordid experience will serve as a cautionary tale to every parent, teacher and school administrator in Eastern Connecticut.

Amero, 40, of Windham, would appear to be an unlikely person to expose children to the lurid images she called up on the classroom computer. She had no criminal record.

Like all substitute teacher candidates, Norwich Superintendent of Schools Pam Aubin said Amero underwent extensive background checks that included fingerprinting. She had taught at Kelly for 1 1/2 years without incident.
Intent was apparent

Still, she was accused and convicted of intentionally accessing several pornographic sites -- not pop-up ads or windows, as she suggested. And she did not turn off the computer when the students saw the images.

While her deeds were disgusting and merit punishment, we expect that her sentence would be significantly less than the maximum 40 years, which some convicted killers do not get.

This is not to minimize the crime she committed; the intent is to have the punishment fit the crime. Sentencing is set for March 2.

That said, this must be a wake-up call for school districts and administrators, who need to ensure that all computers have the proper filters so that a potentially dangerous Web site is not accessible; who need to ensure that substitutes are monitored and managed well; and that children are protected in every other way.

Aubin characterized the Amero case as a "needle in a haystack," and that may well be.

But one needle can do a lot of damage -- to a school district's reputation, and to its students.

I will tell you why she is innocent and why the Bulletin and the entire system has failed Julie Amero. Furthermore, IMO, the Norwich Bulletin's opinion reduces American Justice to a lynch mob mentality more like Iraq than anything we as Americans represent.

I have worked in various roles as a computer scientist for over 25 years. I have been a parent for over thirteen. I have taught school on occasion and I serve on the Region 19 School Board in Connecticut - hence my blog.

The exposure of so-called pornographers has become a law enforcement cottage industry over the years. Every so often, I'll read a newspaper article in which some over-zealous enforcement agency "finds pornography on a civic computer" and of course the owner of that computer is inevitably treated and sentenced like a dissident in a totalitarian regime. In this case, this substitute teacher is facing a sentence of forty years in prison! Note once again the inflammatory rhetoric used by the holy and judgmental Norwich Bulletin to smear this woman's reputation; "her deeds were disgusting and merit punishment" and "this sordid experience will serve as a cautionary tale to every parent, teacher and school administrator in Eastern Connecticut." Not only that - they infer that A CRIME has been committed!

Listen to these words carefully.

The teacher's unions and every self-respecting citizen in this country should petition that this verdict be thrown out and that the school administrators who failed to help her turn off the computer be fired. If the judge in this case was derelict in duty then the State needs to take a hard look at what's going on in the justice system in Norwich as well.

Here's why I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that this woman is innocent. Years ago, I taught an entry level computer science course at Mohegan Community College that in down times attracted older students looking for career salvation or enhancement using computers. What I encountered was a profound ignorance of how computers work and sometimes a mistrust of technology that colleagues refer to as cyberphobia.

About a dozen years ago, I had a student who at the end of a semester asked if I could look at her computer at work because it was acting "funny". She worked at the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. As a pro bono gesture, I met her at her office one afternoon to take a look. What I found was a computer that had never quite been set up correctly and which looked to have been under continuous attack by every conceivable malicious entity one could imagine. There was nothing I could do to help and I believe I advised her to back-up the important things and totally reformat the disk or request a new machine. However, the experience has remained with me for years and I've seen the same effect in other State agencies and private companies - spyware, viruses, malware, and uninvited, self-propogating content.

A number of years ago, when my boys were on AOL messaging their friends I noticed some troubling things. They were somehow getting subscribed to buddy lists enticing them to talk to strangers. To this day I don't know if these were pornographers or police entrapping kids to join pornography chats - who knows where this stuff comes from. But what I do know is that it took me DAYS of dedicated time to rid the computer of stuff that was being downloaded without anyone's knowledge.

I lectured my boys and the parents of the other kids to be careful and clean out the buddy lists and so on. But these are losing battles. In our home instant messaging for the boys was eliminated.

But every year I do a sweep of the home computers which I have locked down fairly tightly for inappropriate materials. And every year, spyware, viruses, inappropriate stuff shows up and it is never an easy thing to get rid of. The idea that anyone can just shut off the machine and it will all be alright is a joke.

The sophistication of today's cyber-villans is scary and it is ubiquitous. The people assigned infected computers are no more pornographers than church-going people are. I will wager that the prosecutor, the police chief who testified against this woman, the judge, the school administration, and the Norwich Bulletin have machines as infected as Julie Amero's was when she entered that classroom. I am further willing to wager that all those self-righteous people are equally clueless how to make the obscene stuff go away.

This incident is a lesson in the miscarriage of American Justice and it reeks to high heaven. The idea that a middle-school substitute teacher HAD MOTIVE to expose teens to porn IS SO ABSURD AT FACE VALUE that everyone involved in this travesty should have their heads examined.

As a teacher and a computer professional I have watched my students, neighbors, and my family struggle with how to stop a virus, or automatic pop-ups, or finding the "OFF" button. The story of this poor woman, in a strange classroom, confronted with a cyber-assault that no one seemed to know how to remedy is Kafka-esque in tragedy. Julie Amero is every innocent American.

The legislatures need to begin to demand rigorous "innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt thresholds" on such incidents. The true villans exist in cyberspace and not in the office, classroom, or next door. The pushers of unwelcome content are victimizing too many innocent people and we need to confront the problem with a clear head instead of a brain dead, holier-than-thou lynch mob. Today, anyone's computer, protected or not, can fall prey to profoundly disturbing misuse without the consent, awareness, or intervention of the user. And so-called computer forensic experts cannot, without significant compelling evidence, determine if human intervention causes the effect.

This woman needs a fair, intelligent retrial sooner than later. Her only crime appears to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone else involved should be ashamed.


Sunbelt Software Blog said...

Damn straight!

Frank Krasicki said...

Thank you for the feedback. Nice to see somebody listening.

Having taught entry level computing in that community I feel like I know this person. It is not at all unusual for someone who is confronted with an unknown computer event to freeze up. It is a phobic kind of reaction that is typical of someone who doesn't understand what's going on and it took weeks for many of my adult students to get over that.

For some people, shutting off the computer is confusing. Will they harm something worse? Will the network come down? They don't know what's safe to do and what's not. On some models, the buttons are not obvious, do not shut off the machine immediately, and so on. It is wholly plausible that this woman could not have found an off button that worked.

Furthermore I have advocated for months that teachers use the computers in the classrooms more. The Board discusses these topics. There is risk in a free and open society that someone will willfully or inadvertently do something wrong.

But, at the end of the day, the fact that students being accidentally exposed to a mean trick, pornography, a bad joke, or whatever is not reason enough to shelter a society in fear. Every such experience, unfortunate and inevitable as they are, is a learning experience that is not life-threatening and can happen anywhere. We are attempting to groom responsible adults in our classrooms not bubble-children.

But in Norwich, and God only knows how this unfortunate event got escalated into a case whose punishment is so draconian that I thought this was happening in Iraq or Afghanistan and not here, NOBODY seemed to use common sense. There were not enough reasonable adults in the teaching ranks, school administration, law enforcement, or judiciary to treat this as the unfortunate accident these things often are! Not a one.

It seems that society is more interested in punishing everyone, innocent or guilty, just to emphasize their moral righteousness. So much so that the teachings of forgiveness, compassion, and treatment of the other found in every religion are ignored for the sake of mad retribution against things people cannot themselves understand or deal with.

And finally this offends me to the soul. Teachers are generally good-hearted people doing very difficult jobs. Substitute teachers work per diem and may be just getting by financially. When the State so viciously attacks the helpless we all need to put the State back in its cage. Kicking poor teachers is bad form.

The utter lack of understanding, compassion, and common sense in Norwich is frightening. Based on the newspaper descriptions, the testimonies being given credence are disingenuous at best and unethically malicious at worst.

Dr. Dawg said...

Sounds like the Hotsearch bar to me. That sucker is really, rteally hard to get rid of. It re-writes your entire registry. Use Spybot Search and Destroy or Spyware Doctor and twenty minutes later it's back. The only solution is to change the registry back, piece by piece.

This is so obviously a gross miscarriage of justice, including an obviously incompetent defence. A malware victim in a crowd of technopeasants with pitchforks and torches...

Michael said...

I recall seeing a movie in the 60's. This was an era of "Communist Under Every Rug."

There is a memorable scene depicting a trial in Communist China and the prosecutor was convincing the judge and jury (???) that the American defendant used a machine (entered as evidence) as a spying device for signalling the enemy. That machine was an old boxy Underwood typewriter. Of course, the American defendant was convicted of spying and sent to a Communist jail. Fast forward 45 years to NOW. That scene is not much different from what happened in Julie's trial, is it? Just add technology (which is not fully understood by most) and a certain amount of porno-hysteria, and it looks exactly the same. The Communist prosecutor was just as righteous as the prosecutor in Julie's case. But Julie isn't in a movie, is she?

When I saw the movie, I was left with "Communist = Bad, America = Good." Was I wrong then?

Crazy Mike,
Washington State

d said...

The fact that the computer was not inspected for malware/spyware should have led to this case being thrown out in the first instance, especially as these are exactly the symptoms of such software. The idea that a teacher would intentionally do this is very far fetched, and alternate explanations should have been properly examined before rushing to judgement.

Unless the world has gone completely crazy, Amero should be released after an appeal.
The editors of the Norwich Bulletin should then be made to print a groveling apology.

It seems increasingly to outside US watchers that the country is slipping into a state of moral McCarthyism.