How spyware nearly sent a teacher to prison

If there’s a poster child for the dangers of spyware, it’s Julie Amero.

The 41-year-old former substitute teacher was convicted of four felony counts of endangering minors last year, stemming from an Oct. 19, 2004, classroom incident where students were exposed to inappropriate images.

Her computer was loaded with spyware that displayed pornography to her students.

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Prosecutors had argued that Amero put her students at risk by exposing them to pornography and failing to shield them from the pop-up images after they appeared on her classroom computer.

Amero was an unlikely porn surfer. Four months pregnant at the time, she said she had only just learned to use e-mail. She says she was well-liked by teachers and students at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut, where the incident occurred. “I was the cool teacher everybody liked,” she remembers.

Amero said she did everything she could to protect her kids, but school officials, reacting to angry calls from parents, went to the police, who soon pressed criminal charges.

The case ruined her life. She believes that stress from the arrest caused her to miscarry her baby, and her career as a teacher is finished. A heart condition landed her in the hospital after she fainted several times. And while she was briefly employed at an area Home Depot last year, she was fired from the job shortly after an employee posted news clippings about her trial in the employee lounge.

Her conviction in January 2007 was the low point of her life, but soon after that Amero found a champion in Alex Eckelberry, the CEO of Sunbelt Software, who contacted her after hearing about her case. After looking at the evidence, he and other security professionals concluded that Amero had been wrongly convicted. Within months they had mustered a high-powered team of lawyers and security experts who ultimately got the guilty verdict overturned, setting the stage for a retrial.

Amero reached a plea bargain agreement with prosecutors late last week. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge, paid a US$100 fine and had her state teaching license revoked. Now, she says, she wants some peace, but she’s still clearly upset with local prosecutors, whom she says pursued an “incompetent and malicious” case against her.

Following is an edited transcript of a telephone interview she gave to the IDG News Service on Wednesday.

IDG News Service: What happened on Oct. 19, 2004?

Julie Amero: I went into the classroom and the regular teacher was there, Matt Napp. He was on the computer and I talked to him about the work for the day and I asked him if I could use his computer at some point. I wanted to e-mail my husband because he had just taught me how to e-mail and was on a business trip.

He [Matt Napp] was like, ‘Yeah, it’s all logged on for you; you’re all set to go. But don’t turn it off because you have to do attendance and this and that with the computers.’ And I was like, ‘Sure, I’m going to run to the ladies’ room before class starts.’ When I came back he had left, and there were two kids sitting at the computer, which was at the side of the teacher’s desk.

I looked at the screen and it was kids looking at hair sites — red and green spiky hairdos — it was no big deal. I started my day and did attendance. Some of the kids were talking and giggling. They were glancing toward the computer which was not facing them, it was facing the window which looked out to a courtyard, and I looked and things were popping up on the screen that were inappropriate. And I knew no better than to, the little tiny box on the right hand corner, click it off. And every time I clicked it, more came.

IDGNS: What was on the screen?

Amero: Little itty bitty tiny pictures of sites: Viagra sites, sex enhancement creams, women in lingerie, things of that sort. Nothing lewd.

IDGNS: So no pornography?

Amero: No.

IDGNS: Was there nudity?

Amero: There was no nudity. There were sites listed. And the things they said [in court] I clicked on and went and looked at have been proven that they never were clicked on and looked at. The things that were on there were just inappropriate things to be looked at in a classroom; Victoria’s Secret kind of stuff, you know.

IDGNS: So what did you do?

Amero: There was a woman in the classroom; she was an aid that helped with a little girl who was deaf. I actually asked her if she’d watch the classroom because something was going on with the computer, and she said, ‘That’s not my job.’ So I had to actually sit there, and I was pretty peeved that she would not watch the class.

So I had to wait until my break and at breaktime I ran, literally ran through the halls to the teachers’ lounge. There were four teachers in the room … and then the art teacher said, ‘You know what, you should probably let someone in the office know.’ I went down to tell … the vice principal and she wasn’t there, so I was like, ‘OK I’ll catch her toward the end of the day.’ I went back to the lunch room and talked to them. I was really worried and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do with it. I keep popping the little Xs, but more come back.’ And [a teacher] said, ‘Make sure you tell somebody by the end of the day.’

At the end of the day, I ran into [the vice principal] and I told her, ‘Hey did you hear?’ and she said, ‘Yes I did. Don’t worry about it. See you tomorrow.’

IDGNS: So there was never anything pornographic?

Amero: [The prosecution] said there was one site visited, where there was a thumb-sized picture of oral sex.

IDGNS: So they found one picture of oral sex on the computer, but you didn’t see that?

Amero: No.

IDGNS: When did this become a criminal case then? Because what you’re describing doesn’t seem that bad.

Amero: I worked for a couple of days after this incident. It took two or three days. I finally got called down to the principal’s office. He sat me down, shut the door and said, ‘What is this?’ And he showed me a list on paper of a bunch of sites. And I don’t know what they were.

So anyway, he gave me a ration of shit and he said, ‘You’re going to go home and you’re not subbing for a while.’

That night he called me at home and said I wasn’t working for that school anymore.

He said, ‘Right now, we just can’t have you here. The kids are talking about the sites in the classroom. They peeked and they saw a few things, and we can’t have that. And a couple of parents called and they were kind of upset about the kids seeing things in the classroom.’

A couple of days go by and I never get anymore phone calls about [substitute teaching]. Then all of a sudden, the police called. They asked me to come down and give a statement. They told me when I went in that I was going to be arrested for 10 counts of risk of injury. They just took my picture and said, ‘See ya.’

IDGNS: How did you feel?

Amero: I was numb. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I had no idea.

We came home and then the fun began. All the news people showed up on my front lawn and we got a lawyer.

IDGNS: Why do you think you were initially convicted on these charges?

Amero: Jurors saw things on the wall [images displayed by the prosecution in the courtroom] that were huge pictures. They said I didn’t do enough to protect the children. I went for help; I don’t know what more I could have done.

IDGNS: How did you feel after the verdict?

Amero: I felt like, ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to go to jail.’ I walked out of there looking to find me a new toothbrush to take to jail. I was in bed for a week or so, crying. My husband had to stay home with me. My family came to me, and we thought I was going to jail. And then out of nowhere, Alex popped up.

IDGNS: Alex Eckelberry, the CEO of Sunbelt Software.

Amero: He’s my shining star. He hangs on my wall at my home.

IDGNS: Tell me about the day your guilty verdict was set aside.

Amero: That day I felt vindicated. I felt that there was hope. Now the world sees that there was erroneous testimony on [the prosecution’s] part. Now the world will see it.

IDGNS: How do you feel about the way it ultimately resolved last Friday?

Amero: I’m not happy that I had to give up my teaching credentials, but that was part of the bargain. They wanted a pound of flesh; they got it.

IDGNS: So what are you going to do now?

Amero: I’ve been trying to keep calm for the last couple of days. A lot of calls have come in. People wanting to see or speak to me. A guy from New Zealand wants to come and do a documentary. I don’t really know where to go with it. I’m kind of timid. I don’t really know what to do.

IDGNS: Do you feel that there are probably other people in your position?

Amero: I suppose there are; you just don’t hear about it.

IDGNS: What do you think about computers?

Amero: I don’t touch them except for e-mail.

IDGNS: So you don’t use the Web?

Amero: I don’t want to touch it. I just don’t like it (laughs). I just don’t do anything with it.

IDGNS: Why do you think prosecutors didn’t back off and just drop the case?

Amero: I don’t know. I think they wanted their pound of flesh because all these people in the world came to my defense. They thought they had a crack case, 40 years in jail, make a name for themselves, another notch in their belt.

And somebody, my shining star, said ‘No way.’

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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