A judge has granted a new trial for a former Connecticut substitute teacher convicted of allowing students to view pornography on a classroom computer.

Prosecutors did not oppose the defense motion for a new trial for Julie Amero, 40, who had faced up to 40 years in prison after her January conviction.

The school computer in question was sent to a state laboratory after the trial, and the judge said in his June 6 decision that those findings might contradict evidence presented by the state computer expert.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that faulty information,” said Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, who granted the request for a new trial.

Amero has adamantly denied clicking on pornographic web sites that appeared on her classroom’s computer screen in October 2004 while she was teaching seventh-graders at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Conn.

Some technology experts believe unseen spyware and adware programs might have generated the pop-up ads for pornographic web sites. Amero and her supporters say the old computer, which she was ordered to leave on, lacked firewall or anti-spyware protections to prevent inappropriate pop-ups.

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

Amero was to have been sentenced June 6 but instead pleaded not guilty to the same charges, four counts of risk of injury to a minor. A date for the new trial had not been set as of press time.

“I had a great team behind me, and I feel comfortable with the decision today,” she said after the hearing.

Her attorney, William F. Dow, commended prosecutors, saying they acted responsibly.

“The lesson from this is all of us are subject to the whims of these computers,” he said after the hearing.

Amero’s case has become a cause célèbre among many technology experts, who say what happened to her could happen to anyone.

It all began in October 2004. Amero was assigned to a class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, 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.

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.

But many were 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?”

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 bears 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.”

Readers like those–and eSchool News–will be watching as Amero’s new trial unfolds.

Links:

Full coverage: Julie Amero trial

http://www.eschoolnews.com/amero

Norwich Public Schools

http://www.norwichpublicschools.org