Connecticut Geography

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Rick Green in this column scratches his head at the recent Julie Amero case, where new media meets law

The state of Connecticut spent two years investigating before it won a speedy conviction of Julie Amero – the infamous Norwich porn teacher – this January.

But it was never as tidy as the Norwich Public Schools, the Norwich police, the state of Connecticut and the Norwich Bulletin newspaper made it seem.

In truth, Amero, a clumsy computer novice, was the victim of malicious software that took over the PC in the classroom where she was substituting on Oct. 19, 2004. Since Amero’s arrest, the state has refused to even consider this possibility.

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This case has been a mystery to many people, especially the degree to which officials, including ASA Smith, have expressed ignorance of pretty basic technology and IT issues. The state’s inflexibility has also been strange, as illustrated by Green in this section of the piece:

“The evidence is overwhelming … she purposefully went to these websites. … We know that the images on there were offensive,” Smith said, ramming his point home. “She clearly should not have allowed this to happen. The evidence is clear. She is guilty of all the charges.”

Except when you consider the facts.

Thankfully, a team of computer security experts from throughout the country, drawn to the case by outraged Internet bloggers and a handful of journalists, has presented Smith and his bosses with the truth.

Amero didn’t click on the porn. Software that might have blocked the porn was months out of date. Critical evidence was mishandled. School and police computer “experts” who testified were woefully ignorant about computer security and porn spyware to the point that their testimony was blatantly false.

The state’s case began unraveling soon after the hapless jury voted to convict. A firestorm of pressure – from university professors and software executives to programmers – forced repeated postponements of Amero’s sentencing.

Smith “closes the case,” then reality slowly sinks in. That the case even went to trial reveals what?

This gets me to the point. I often talk to students about what we mean by relationship building under the rubric of critical thinking. In a critical context, linking seemingly unrelated information together is important to innovation and problem solving. A classic example of this is the Cosmic Background Radiation and the Big Bang.

It may be that the Amero case relates to more than just pop ups, aging IT, and the the welfare of children. Kevin Minor, in a Courant opinion piece titled Why I’m Leaving Connecticut Just as Fast as I Can, outlines his reasons for seeking a living in Texas. He writes:

At 25, I am part of the fastest-growing age segment that is leaving Connecticut. I did not want to leave, but a prohibitively high cost of living coupled with widespread complacency and ineptitude at the state Capitol have sealed my fate. I liked Connecticut’s shorelines, its state parks and its midsize, human-scale cities. How many more people like me have to leave before the rest of the state gets the message?

How are the fumbling of the Amero case and Miner’s perception of a stagnant Connecticut related? The Amero case appears to reveal an inability to meet new technological demands, a reluctance to approach people with decency, and a failure in Connecticut’s leadership to keep up with the realities of change. My technological premise is not to plunk technology into a space for its own sake but to use it as a tool with which to engage people in new and different ways. If computers are going to placed into classrooms, then these items should be used and maintained appropriately. “Appropriateness” is a key criteria for judging technological use and digital application. Teachers should be trained to manipulate the equipment and to tease out its potential and they should be provided equipment that meets their evolving needs and knowhow. This costs loads of money, but if done properly, it can surely be more beneficial than a court case that may do more to push good people out of teaching than to invite them in. Smart people don’t like being bullied. And smart citizens shouldn’t bow to dumb government.

The Amero case could have been handled with a meeting between parents, Amero herself, the principle, and an IT person who knew what they were talking about. This would have been the decent approach. Instead, the State’s legal engine got going and in its typical Kafkaesque rotundity, made a fool of itself. Why would Miner want to remain in a state that appears to enjoy ignorance and ineptitude. The state loves education but doesn’t put its resources behind learning. It loves to claim high SAT scores but will not design and maintain spaces that encourage people to remain and revise the revision, wifi or no wifi. Park development, scenic urban boulevards, local markets, public garden space, new media industry, controlled traffic flow, art space, energy innovation, local design, deschooled learning.

By the state, I mean its leadership and its decision-making citizens, who appear lost to the power of good design and to the power of urban potential and networks. In this world, change is inevitable. OS will be upgraded and idiots will attempt to destroy systems, thus one of the critical abilities for which Connecticut’s leaders should go back to school is an attitude that simply says: “I will keep up so that when it comes time to legislate, moderate, litigate, and amplify, will know what I’m talking and thinking about.”

I think we need to instill good critical and analytical habits into our students (speaking from the POV of a college teacher). We also need leaders who have them as well (one of the lessons of Beowulf, who was praised for his fairness, intelligence, as well as fighting skill). Speaking from the POV of a citizen, I think we all need schooling in relationship building.

I wonder how long it would take to create the clean energy sector if Connecticut up and said: “We will be converting all our schools to solar power within 5 years.”

But what politician would dare make such a call. We can’t even get Simsbury citizens to get out and vote on their own budget.


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