Cyber bullying case nets mixed verdict

A Missouri mother on trial in a landmark cyber bullying case was convicted Nov. 26 of three minor offenses instead of the main conspiracy charge in a cruel internet hoax that allegedly drove a 13-year-old girl to suicide.

The federal jury could not reach a verdict on the conspiracy allegation against 49-year-old Lori Drew and rejected three other felony counts of accessing computers without authorization to inflict emotional harm on the girl.

Instead, the panel convicted her of three misdemeanor offenses of accessing computers without authorization. Each of those counts is punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Drew faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the four original counts.

U.S. District Court Judge George Wu declared a mistrial on the conspiracy count. It was not known if she would be retried.

Drew did not show any visible emotion when the clerk read the verdicts.

Most members of the six-man, six-woman jury left court without speaking to reporters. One juror, who would identify himself only by the first name, Marcilo, indicated jurors were not convinced Drew’s actions involved the intent alleged by prosecutors.

“Some of the jurors just felt strongly that it wasn’t tortuous, and everybody needed to stay with their feeling. That was really the balancing point,” he said.

The case hinged on an unprecedented—and, some legal experts say, highly questionable—application of computer-fraud law.

Prosecutors said Drew and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to teenage neighbor Megan Meier. The “boy” then dumped Megan, saying, “The world would be a better place without you.” Megan promptly hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet in October 2006.

Prosecutors said Drew wanted to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about Drew’s teenage daughter. They said Drew knew Megan suffered from depression and was emotionally fragile.

“Lori Drew decided to humiliate a child,” U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien, chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, told the jury. “The only way she could harm this pretty little girl was with a computer. She chose to use a computer to hurt a little girl, and for four weeks she enjoyed it.”

O’Brien said it was the nation’s first cyber-bullying trial.

But some legal experts have suggested that O’Brien overreached and that a conviction might not stand up on appeal.

Drew was not directly charged with causing Megan’s death. Instead, prosecutors indicted her under the federal Computer Use and Fraud Act, which in the past has been used in hacking and trademark theft cases.

Among other things, Drew was charged with conspiring to violate the fine print in MySpace’s terms-of-service agreement, which prohibits the use of phony names and harassment of other MySpace members.

“The rules are fairly simple,” federal prosecutor Mark Krause said. “You don’t lie. You don’t pretend to be someone else. You don’t use the site to harass others. They harassed Megan Meier.”

Drew’s lawyer, Dean Steward, contended his client had little to do with the content of the messages and was not at home when the final one was sent. Steward also argued that nobody reads the fine print on service agreements.

“How can you violate something when you haven’t even read it?” Steward asked. “End of case.”

Prosecutors said Drew, her then-13-year-old daughter Sarah, and Drew’s 18-year-old business assistant Ashley Grills set up the phony MySpace profile for a boy named “Josh Evans,” posting a photo of a bare-chested boy with tousled brown hair. “Josh” then told Megan she was “sexi” and assured her, “i love you so much.”

Grills allegedly sent the final, insulting message to Megan before she killed herself in the St. Louis suburb of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.

Missouri authorities said there was no state law under which Drew could be charged. But federal prosecutors in California claimed jurisdiction because MySpace is based in Beverly Hills.

Among the prosecution’s witnesses was Megan’s mother, Tina, who recounted finding her daughter hanging in a closet. Prosecutors also called some of Drew’s friends and associates, who painted the defendant as cold and indifferent about the prank and the suicide.

Sarah Drew testified she never saw her mother use the MySpace account. But Grills, testifying under immunity from prosecution, said she saw Drew type at least one message under the name Josh Evans.

After the suicide, Missouri passed a law against cyber-harassment. Similar federal legislation has been proposed on Capitol Hill (see "Federal lawmaker targets cyber bullying").


Google Earth brings ancient Rome online

Google Earth has added to its software a three-dimensional simulation that painstakingly reconstructs nearly 7,000 buildings of ancient Rome, including the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Circus Maximus. The program, which gives users access to maps and global satellite imagery, now hosts a new layer that allows surfers to see how Rome might have looked in A.D. 320, a bustling city of about 1 million people under Emperor Constantine. Pop-up windows provide information on the monuments, and visitors also can enter some of the most important sites, including the Senate and the Colosseum, to observe the architecture and marble decorations. Google Earth’s “Ancient Rome 3-D” is based on a simulation created by an international team led by the University of Virginia and the University of California. Using laser scans of today’s ruined monuments and advice from archaeologists, experts worked for about a decade to reconstruct ancient Rome within its 13-mile-long walls, said Bernard Frischer, who heads Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The simulation, which was completed in 2007, was intended as a scholarly tool to study the ancient buildings and run experiments on them—for example, to determine their crowd capacity. Frischer said the work’s publication on the internet means it can be used for broader educational purposes. Google has started a competition for U.S. teachers offering prizes for the best curriculum that uses the new tool.


Former schools chief gets 6 years in ed-tech corruption case

Former Prince George’s County, Md., schools Superintendent Andre J. Hornsby was sentenced Nov. 25 to six years of prison time in a federal corruption case that involved steering educational technology contracts to his district in return for personal kickbacks, reports the Baltimore Sun.?"I’m totally embarrassed by what situation I’ve put myself into," Hornsby told U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messite. "I understand the seriousness of my actions. … This has taken a toll on myself, my family, my friends, and my colleagues."?Messite also ordered Hornsby to serve three years of supervised release after he leaves prison and pay a $20,000 fine and $70,000 in restitution to the Prince George’s schools. The FBI launched an investigation of Hornsby’s activities in the fall of 2004 after the Sun reported that he had presided over a $1 million purchase of early-literacy technology from LeapFrog SchoolHouse without disclosing that his live-in girlfriend, Sienna Owens, was a saleswoman for the company.?In July, after four years of investigations and two trials, the 55-year-old Hornsby was convicted of three counts of wire fraud and one count each of evidence tampering, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. Investigators concluded that he illegally steered contracts not only to LeapFrog but to E-Rate Manager, a shell company run by Hornsby’s business partner, Cynthia Joffrion.?Hornsby covertly arranged to get thousands of dollars from the proceeds of the lucrative contracts he helped push through for both companies, according to the indictment.?Prosecutors said Hornsby also ordered school employees to destroy eMail messages that might have implicated him. One employee kept a copy of the eMail backup tapes, giving prosecutors a timeline for the deals…

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Tennessee State bans JuicyCampus from its campus servers

Tennessee State University has banned a popular, controversial web site from its servers, making it the first state-funded university to impose a ban on the web site, reports the Student Press Law Center. The decision was made to ban from the university’s servers after an upset student’s parent complained to Michael Freeman, vice president for student affairs, about an anonymous comment posted about her child. JuicyCampus is a web site targeted to college students who are encouraged to post anonymous comments with the latest gossip from their campuses. There is no registration process, and anyone can post an anonymous comment. Tennessee State’s ban became public after Matt Ivester, CEO and president of, sent an open letter to media outlets decrying the decision by Freeman. In the letter, Ivester derided Freeman’s decision as "Orwellian" and "joining the ranks of the Chinese government in internet censorship." Freeman disagreed, saying the site is still accessible to students using third-party companies such as a Blackberry or an iPhone. He said he made the decision on Nov. 12, the same day the mother made the complaint, adding that he did not consult legal professionals to determine if banning the site would impose First Amendment violations. Freeman backed up his decision by providing a written legal opinion from the school’s Office of Chief of Staff and University Counsel, stating that the university’s servers were not public forums. Ivester said students at Tennessee State should be upset about the ban, and he said he would support a lawsuit opposing the censorship, should any student decide to bring one against the school…

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Study: Math teachers often only a chapter ahead of students

Math can be hard enough, but imagine the difficulty when a teacher is just one chapter ahead of the students. This happens all too frequently, and it happens more often to poor and minority students, reports the Associated Press. Those children are about twice as likely to have math teachers who don’t know their subject, according to a report by the Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group. Studies show the connection between teachers’ knowledge and student achievement is particularly strong in math. "Individual teachers matter a tremendous amount in how much students learn," said Ross Wiener, who oversees policy issues at the organization. The report looked at teachers with neither an academic major nor certification in the subjects they teach. Among the findings, which were based on Education Department data: In high-poverty schools, two in five math classes have teachers without a college major or certification in math. In schools with a greater share of African-American and Latino children, nearly one in three math classes is taught by such a teacher. Math is important because it is considered a "gateway" course, one that leads to greater success in college and the workplace. Kids who finish Algebra II in high school are more likely to get bachelor’s degrees. And people with bachelor’s degrees earn substantially more than those with high school diplomas. The teaching problem is most acute in the middle grades, 5-8, the report said. That’s a crucial time for math, said Ruth Neild, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University…

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Endowments suffer beyond the ivied halls

Some of the nation’s leading universities are trying to sell chunks of their portfolios privately as their endowments swoon with the markets, reports the New York Times. Among institutional investors, school endowments aggressively embraced private equity, real estate partnerships, venture capital, commodities, hedge funds, and other so-called alternative investments over the last few years. Endowments with more than $1 billion in assets reported 35 percent of their holdings in these types of investments on average last year, a much greater portion than big public pension funds, for example. Now, they are balking. The value of some of these investments has fallen, and they are not easily shed because there is no public market for them, as there is for stocks. Worse, private equity and venture capital funds require investors to put up additional capital over time. Cash may now be in short supply at schools facing budget pressures and investment losses. The University of Virginia, which has a $4.2 billion endowment, posted a letter on its web site saying that it might explore the sale of some of its private equity holdings and would sell hundreds of millions of dollars in other assets. Harvard, the granddaddy of endowments with $36.9 billion at midyear, is marketing its $1.5 billion stake in venture capital and buyout funds. And the $6.5 billion Duke University Endowment is weighing the sale of $200 million of its stake in private equity…

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Governor to Obama: Campus projects will create jobs

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski believes a quick way to put millions of people to work and help bring the economy out of its nosedive would be a massive public-works project on university campuses, reports the Oregonian. Kulongoski said he plans to send a letter to President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team with a proposal to direct billions in federal stimulus dollars to cover deferred maintenance at colleges in Oregon and around the nation. If they want to do something with an immediate impact, he said, "they should poll all 50 states and say, ‘We want to know what your deferred maintenance is on your university campuses.’" Oregon’s backlog is about $650 million, he said. Besides taking care of long-neglected repair issues on hundreds of campuses, the effort would spread the jobs well beyond urban centers, he said. So far, Obama has signaled he wants to focus on transportation and school modernization for public-works stimulus projects. Under Kulongoski’s plan, the government would commit to starting work within six months of Obama signing the order. That would be possible, he said, because colleges have the projects lined up and ready to go. They just need the money. Needs on Oregon campuses range from new ventilation systems to electrical wiring overhauls in aging buildings, according to a report by the Oregon University System. Oregon State University has the biggest need, with about $228 million in deferred maintenance. Next is Portland State, with $167 million in needs…

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e-Rate filing window opens Dec. 2

Schools and libraries can begin applying for 2009-10 e-Rate discounts on Tuesday, Dec. 2, and they’ll have until 11:59 EST on Thursday, Feb. 12, to submit all necessary Form 471 application materials, says the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the program.

In recent years, the e-Rate filing window has opened toward the beginning of November. This year’s filing window opens later than usual. And while that won’t affect the amount of time schools and libraries will have to apply for their share of $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts, it could affect how long it takes the SLD to process all the applications and issue funding commitment decision letters to applicants.

And that, in turn, could push back notification of more schools and libraries beyond the July 1 start of the new program year, some applicants fear.

Cheryl Stepp, instructional technology supervisor for Florida’s Osceola County Schools, noted that e-Rate applications have undergone increased scrutiny in recent years.

"With all the checking and cross checking, [coupled with the delay in the opening of the filing window,] they won’t be approving many 471s in time," Stepp predicted of SLD officials. "Thank goodness we apply for reimbursement, and not for the SLD to pay part of our phone bill [directly]. Those are the people who will suffer. If [schools] apply to have the SLD pay a portion of their bill and it is not approved until late July or August, the poor schools … might be paying the whole July bill [by themselves]."

Bonnie Tollefson, director of the Levy County, Fla., public library system, expressed another concern with the late opening of the filing window.

"Because my 471 has to go through the county attorney and the Board of County Commissioners before it can be submitted, and [because] the December holidays are coming up, I won’t be able to submit it until late January," she said. "That will push us [farther back] in the approval process, which will mean we’ll have to have funds in our budget to handle the bills until the discounts kick in."

SLD spokesman Eric Iverson downplayed the concerns. Despite the delayed start to the application process, "the window will be open for the same time period as it has in the past," Iverson said. He also said there "shouldn’t be any material impact on applicants" in terms of how quickly they will start to receive funding. 
Peter Kaplan, director of regulatory affairs for e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL), agreed with Iverson’s take.

"Schools typically don’t wait until the announcement of the window to start their e-Rate procurements," Kaplan said. "If the window closes [in] mid-February, the SLD should be able to process applications in a timely manner. This past spring, FFL released an analysis of the pace of funding, commitments and the SLD [has made] improvements in processing Form 471s each year."

The SLD had to delay the opening of the filing window while it waited for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue its annual list of products and services that are eligible for e-Rate discounts.

That took longer than usual this year, because the FCC was considering several proposed changes to the program’s Eligible Services List (ESL).

Earlier this year, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making in which it sought public feedback about these proposed changes. In particular, the agency wanted to know whether e-Rate stakeholders thought it should add filtering software, antivirus software, firewall services, broadcast messaging services, and several other new products and services to the ESL. (See "FCC seeks comments on e-Rate eligibility.")

When all was said and done, the agency chose not to act on any of its proposed changes–at least, not this year. The ESL for the 2009-10 e-Rate program year remains the same as last year’s list.

Many of the responses the FCC received objected to these proposed changes, Kaplan said.

While the SLD "can only disburse a little over $2 billion each year, … close to $4 billion gets requested each year," he explained. "If you make more services eligible, that makes it less likely that poor school districts will get access to the Priority Two products and solutions they desperately need."

Kaplan said it’s also possible that the FCC did not want to make any major changes to the program until a new administration takes over in Washington. FCC officials were unavailable for comment.

The agency’s inaction regarding the ESL disappointed some applicants.

"We are very disappointed that the [new ESL] did not include the proposed changes," said Osceola’s Stepp. "The software mentioned–antivirus, filtering, etc.–is expensive software. As the SLD requires us to provide the protection for the students as well as the equipment and network, [it] should be willing to assist in those costs."

The e-Rate is a $2.25 billion-a-year federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections for all eligible schools and libraries. Applicants can request discounts of between 20 and 90 percent of the cost of eligible products and services.


Schools and Libraries Division

Federal Communications Commission

Osceola County Schools

Funds for Learning



Experts: Alternative search tools can help students

Higher education is discovering that Google isn’t the only game in town.

The search-engine giant, along with competitor Yahoo, has long been the most-used search site, but other search tools have surfaced in recent years that could help college students do more in-depth research of video and audio files and web sites that have cluttered the internet.

Blinkx is a search tool that allows users to scan more than 30 million hours of audio clips and video files from across the internet. Raymond Schroeder, director of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said audio and video files are translated to text, making it possible for word-based searches to find online videos.

For college projects that require the research and study of political speeches, for instance, Blinkx can be more useful to students than a quick search on Google or Yahoo, Schroeder said.

"It’s perfect for when you’re looking for a specific medium," he said. 

Maureen Yoder, director of the online technology and education master’s program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., said the ubiquity of cell phones and smart phones on college campuses could spur the rise of the human-enhanced search engine ChaCha. The Indiana-based company launched last January and invites users to send questions via text or voice for free; within minutes, the query is answered and delivered back to the phone.

ChaCha’s service might not be applicable for major term papers or projects, but Yoder said its immediacy could appeal to young adults with a quick question during class or a study session.

"It’s one of the most innovative search tools I’ve seen," said Yoder, who has studied search engines for more than 20 years and who hosted a forum on alternative search tools at the Sloan Consortium conference in October. "Everybody isn’t on their computer all the time, but everyone always has their cell phones with them. … It’s very new, and it’s very exciting."

In September, ChaCha announced it’s had more than a million users and has answered 27 million queries in its first nine months on the web.

But even with the rise of alternative search tools, Google and Yahoo dominate. In March 2008, Americans used internet search tools 11 billion times–and Google and Yahoo accounted for 9 billion of those searches. Sixty percent of those searches were conducted on Google, according to published surveys.

Experts who have tracked the evolution of web-based search tools said Internet Archive could be invaluable to students searching for headlines or stories from a decade ago or longer. The site–which archives more than 80 billion web pages dating back to 1996–shows exactly what web pages looked like from the time they launched to today. For instance, a student researching a presidential or congressional election could see what CNN’s web site posted on that day and in the weeks following.  

"You can see exactly how events were covered on the web back then," Schroeder said.  "You can see how attitudes have changed."

There are also a host of little-known search engines that use visuals to display pertinent search results. Sites such as Kartoo display search results with miniature, thumbnail-like versions of the web pages that result. With Kartoo, one of the web’s first visual search tools, users can scan over each option and click on the page according to its image and content.

Grokker and Touchgraph are other image-based search engines that give users a miniature preview of what they’ll see when they click on a link. Grokker provides a variety of ways to narrow or expand internet searches. Users can zoom in and out of graphic results displayed on the screen, eMail results to other users, or separate results according to date. 

"I would think there are some people who would rather have a visual representation of what they find rather than a list," Yoder said. "It’s made for a different learning style."

A tool recently unveiled by Microsoft and a team of other web-based companies could enhance group projects on every level of education. The tool–called SearchTogether–allows people at different computers to conduct online searches together and pool the results, according to a New York Times report. Divvying responsibilities for projects, experts said, could streamline research and allow students to help each other use better search terms.

Relying solely on the giants of the web-searching world, experts said, could limit students’ research and omit findings that could enhance their understanding of subjects and make their class assignments more thorough.

"I think, ultimately, using different search tools can provide much better research," Schroeder said, adding the he expects Yahoo and Google to purchase up-and-coming search sites as they gain in popularity, especially among college-aged people. "I think these tools will be bought up by Google and others and become part of the tools we use every day."

"If you only rely on one [search engine], then you are completely dependent on how [it] organizes information," Yoder said. "Google is great, but the functionality of [alternative search engines] goes beyond Google."