How spyware nearly sent a teacher to prison

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

Julie Amero

Julie Amero

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.

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.

She calls Eckelberry her "shining star" and keeps a picture of him on her wall

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.

What happened on Oct. 19, 2004?

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.

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