In a case with chilling implications for educators nationwide, a Connecticut substitute teacher is now a convicted felon after a jury found her guilty of exposing students to online pornography.

Until recently, Julie Amero says, she lived the quiet life of a small-town substitute teacher, with little knowledge of computers and even less about porn. Now, she is in the middle of a criminal case that hinges on the intricacies of both, and at press time she faced the possibility of jail time.

Amero was convicted in January of exposing seventh-grade students to pornographic images on her classroom computer. She contends the images were inadvertently thrust onto the screen by pornographers’ unseen spyware and adware programs.

Prosecutors dispute that. But her argument has made her a cause célèbre among many technology experts, who say what happened to her could happen to anyone. “I’m scared,” the 40-year-old Amero said. “I’m just beside myself over something I didn’t do.”

It all began in October 2004. Amero was assigned to a class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Conn., a city of around 37,000 people about 40 miles east of Hartford.

Before her class started, Amero says, a teacher allowed her to eMail her husband. She says she used the computer and went to the bathroom, returning to find the permanent teacher gone and two students viewing a web site on hair styles.

Amero says she chased the students away and started class. But later, she says, pornographic images started popping up on the computer screen by themselves. She says she tried to click the images off, but they kept returning, and she was under strict orders not to shut the computer off.

“I did everything I possibly could to keep them from seeing anything,” she says.

Prosecutor David Smith contended at Amero’s three-day trial that she actually clicked on graphic web sites.

Several students testified that they saw pictures of naked men and women, including at least one image of a couple having oral sex.

Computer consultant Herb Horner testified for the defense that the children had gone to an innocent web site on hair styles and were redirected to another hairstyle site that had pornographic links. “It can happen to anybody,” Horner said.

The defense argued that the images were caused by adware and spyware–programs that often are secretly planted on computers by internet businesses to track users’ browsing habits. They can generate pop-up ads–in some cases, pornographic ones.

“What is extraordinary is the prosecution admitted there was no search made for spyware–an incredible blunder akin to not checking for fingerprints at a crime scene,” Alex Eckelberry, president of a Florida software company, wrote recently in the local newspaper. “When a pop-up occurs on a computer, it will get shown as a visited web site, and no ‘physical click’ is necessary.”

But many remained skeptical, including Mark Steinmetz, who served on Amero’s jury. “So many kids noticed this going on,” Steinmetz said. “It was truly uncalled for. I would not want my child in her classroom. All she had to do was throw a coat over [the computer] or unplug it. We figured even if there were pop-ups, would you sit there?” Amero and her supporters say the old computer lacked firewall or anti-spyware protections to prevent inappropriate pop-ups.

Principal Scott Fain said the computer lacked the latest firewall protection because a vendor’s bill had gone unpaid. “I was shocked to see what made it through,” he said.

In an online forum for submitting comments about the case, eSchool News readers overwhelmingly expressed shock and dismay at Amero’s plight. While many readers said she could have done more to prevent students from viewing the images, nearly all agreed she has gotten a bad rap–and many also said the school should bear much of the blame. “Not only is Amero’s experience plausible, but almost anyone who has used the internet has been the recipient of unwanted and unasked-for pornographic content,” one reader wrote. “I suspect a regular classroom teacher would have disobeyed orders and pulled the plug. … At the very most, she is guilty of poor judgment, and that is all.”

“What is really tragic about this case is … there is no evidence to indicate that the teacher, in fact, visited a porn web site,” wrote another. “Shame on the narrow-minded people who convicted her for failing to take the time to understand the nature of this very serious problem.”

A third reader had this to say: “Using this substitute teacher as the scapegoat for the school’s lack of action for internet safety is more of a criminal act than having the pop-ups on the screen.”

As of press time, sentencing for Amero was scheduled for March 29. Smith, the prosecutor, would not say what he planned to recommend. Though Amero faced a possible punishment of up to 40 years in prison, John Newsone, a defense attorney in Norwich familiar with the case, said she might be spared prison or face perhaps a year to 18 months.

Meanwhile, Amero’s husband, Wes Volle, has started a blog to help build legal and political support for his wife’s case. In an entry posted shortly after Amero’s conviction, Volle said a law firm had approached the couple and offered to take on her case pro bono. He also said they planned to appeal.