The Amero Case and Computers for K-12

A teacher, Julie Amero, ran into some difficulty with computers used for a classroom demonstration. From Wikipedia:

On October 19, 2004 Julie Amero was substituting for a seventh-grade language class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut. The teacher’s computer was accessed by pupils while the regular teacher, Matthew Napp, was out of the room. When Julie took charge, the computer started showing pornographic images.

On January 5, 2007 Amero was convicted in Norwich Superior Court on four counts of risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child. Her sentencing was delayed four times after her conviction, with both the prosecution and judge not satisfied that all aspects of the case had been assesed.[1] The felony charges for which she was originally convicted carry a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.[2]

On June 6, 2007, a New London superior court judge threw out the conviction of Amero, she was granted a new trial and entered a plea of not guilty. The new trial date has not yet been set.[3]

There’s more on the news of the conviction being tossed out at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

The computer in question apparently had inadequate firewall, antivirus, and antimalware protection, resulting in the problem experienced by Amero of persistent pop-ups showing pornographic images.

While the legal issues are worth discussing, I want to concentrate here on the interface between education and technology.

Let’s consider what the Amero case is saying about what teachers are responsible for, and what policy implies. The teacher is responsible for any material presented via the computer to the students. Couple that with the criminal penalties available for all sorts of objectionable content that is available from the Internet, and you have the situation that student Internet access itself must be considered a high risk. Given the extreme reaction to the problem, I think teachers should insist that any computers used for classroom demonstration be run from custom Linux or FreeBSD live CD or DVD technology. You can pack a lot of programs and data on a DVD. There would be no Internet access for those demonstrations. In any cost/benefit analysis that has “you can be sent away for 40 years if something goes wrong” on the cost side, it is unlikely that anything exclusively available via live feed to the Internet will make the benefit side even marginally attractive.

In the particular case of Amero, there is the complication that there is a distinction between the teacher’s computer and what was generally available for students. Teachers likely do need Internet access for communication via email and researching for lesson plan development. And especially for a substitute teacher, relying upon the regular teacher’s attention to technical detail in keeping a computer in shape for student use is taking a huge risk. Again, though, one can contemplate having a specific student boot media that would present a system with the programs and data relevant to the lesson plan or curriculum, but without an Internet stack or the means to activate an Internet stack. Before students use a teacher’s computer, the computer would be rebooted from the student media. Of course, given the early age of computer competence for many children, any system that can be used with broader permissions and capabilities should be viewed by instructors as a large potential risk. As the Amero case demonstrated, one is betting one’s career and personal liberty upon the trust one takes that a computer can be safely used for student instruction. It seems that we are back to the idea that Internet access in the K-12 school setting needs to restricted to instructors and administrators, which means that there should be no network drops and no wireless networks available in classrooms, and students should not be permitted personal devices that can be used to access the Internet wirelessly. This also means that a teacher’s classroom computer should not have an Internet connection at all. Internet functionality would be reserved for locations that are physically barred to student access.

Then there is the whole notion of the easy ability to transfer data. A malicious student would not need an Internet connection to create a nightmare situation for a teacher, merely an easily concealed flash memory drive capable of holding a set of pornographic images and an application that would proceed to display them that was unresponsive to the usual means of terminating programs. This is not a very high bar so far as programming prowess is concerned. Given the reality that even machines that have no Internet access and only a restricted, technically perfect implementation of a purpose-specific operating system and application software could still be compromised readily by a student means that even student access to a computer at all must be considered risky.

Of course, that approach is not the ideal. The ideal would be to lose a good chunk of the prudery that makes the situation as dangerous for K-12 education professionals as it is. That’s not as easy to fix. It requires, at a minimum, prosecutors who are willing to apply some discretion to cases, to prosecute those teachers who had the intent of “impairing the morals of a child” and to refuse to prosecute cases where there is no apparent intent to to so. Until such time, though, I would not blame any teacher for refusing to permit Internet access in the classroom, or even simply saying that any computers that may be present would be turned off entirely if they cannot personally vouch for the safety of what is on it or may be displayed through its use. Taken to the logical extreme that the prosecution of Amero implies, we can set ourselves up for a system in which students do not learn about computer technology during their K-12 studies, and will only be as prepared for jobs interfacing with computer technology as they managed to learn on their own outside of school. That doesn’t strike me as being a good way for us to go.

Update: Wikipedia notes that while Amero eventually had the major convictions overturned on appeal, she did eventually have to enter a plea deal where she plead guilty to a charge of “disorderly conduct” and surrendered her teaching license. So while she avoided jail time, she still had to give up her life’s profession to escape this situation. The Wikipedia article discusses the “expert” who testified that Amero had to have deliberately clicked a link that displayed porn, and how the “expert” actually knew no such thing, and had not really looked for alternative explanations. So it still seems to be the case that if you are going to be a K12 teacher and you are thinking about using a computer linked to the internet for presentations, don’t do it. The risks are still severe.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.