WHISPERS IN THE HALLWAY: PART ONE OF A TWO-PART SERIES

jhouston@ledger-enquirer.com and dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 6, 2010 

STUDENTS AND TEACHERS HEARD ABOUT IT.

THE PRINCIPAL AND DISTRICT HEARD, TOO.

FOR 18 MONTHS, THE POLICE DID NOT.

TRUTHS UNTOLD

HOW POLICE WERE LEFT OUT OF THE JAMES CYPERT JR. CASE

The whispers had faded away.

The girl stood outside police headquarters and thought about what she would say. She thought about the whispers of the tall teacher, promising love and marriage. The whispers of her classmates. The hushed meetings with a teacher here, the principal there. The sense that the truth would be discovered.

Somehow, it had ended. Her class had graduated, and then another. She was 18 years old --- almost 19 --- and not the person she had hoped to be. A few miles away, a new group of seniors ruled the halls of the brick high school, whispering about new things.

The girl opened the door and followed signs to the Sex Crimes Division.

On that day --- Dec. 6, 2006 --- she told Columbus Police Department Detective Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick that she had been "emotionally manipulated" by James Gary Cypert Jr., her English teacher at Columbus High School, from age 16 until she graduated in May 2005. He had kissed her in his classroom. He had sent her love letters. He had promised to divorce his wife.

Though Principal Susan Bryant and the school district heard more than 18 months earlier that Cypert had relationships with two of his students, this was the first time the police were told. The district attorney and child welfare agencies hadn't been notified either.

State law requires school teachers and administrators who have reason to believe that a student may have been sexually abused to make a report to a child welfare agency providing protective services or to police or the district attorney.

Now the allegations against Cypert would be investigated. And later, on April 30, 2007, he would be arrested and charged with sexual assault against a person in his custody.

Here's how --- according to police interviews, court records, and documents obtained from the school district through the Georgia Open Records Act --- a popular but unstable teacher manipulated female students and at least one teacher into intimate relationships, failed to keep his crimes a secret from his students and principal, dodged a professional investigation and stayed in the classroom for another two years.

Somebody who'd listen

The girl was a senior but only 16 years old. There were more than a 1,000 students, bright kids from all over town, and somehow she felt alone.

The students always were talking. Everyone was talking. And when they weren't talking, they were texting. But the girl needed somebody to listen.

There was an English teacher. He stood 6-foot-5 but had a way of getting down to the students' level. He understood that life is not as easy and obvious as parents like to think.

Mr. Cypert was his name.

In the fall of 2004, James Cypert of Columbus went on amazon.com and reviewed a book called "The Lovely Bones." It was about a teenager who had been molested and murdered and was looking down from heaven as her family struggled to cope.

"The most satisfying but initially frustrating aspect of the novel is its seeming lack of closure: nothing wraps up tidily at the end and justice, for many readers, may not have necessarily been served," Cypert wrote. "But it is interesting to note the progression of the characters through the stages of grief; and the sense of satisfaction comes from their movement toward hope and recovery."

Sensitive. Caring. Hopeful. That was Mr. Cypert. That was how he talked to all his students.

But one day in the winter of 2005, he was looking into her eyes and talking just to her.

And she was talking to him, and he was listening. They had so much to talk about. So she started eating lunch with Mr. Cypert --- Jim --- in his classroom. The glass pane in the door had been covered, and the door was closed.

She told him about her problems, and he told her about his.

Like he was depressed a lot and had slit his wrists and then spent some time at The Bradley Center. He'd come to school wearing bandages, and he'd shown her the cuts. They were real. She would remember it later when she went to police: The cuts were real.

Jim's handwriting was real, too, on a napkin. "I love you," it said.

A good writer, he knew when to keep it simple: "I fall in love with you more every day. I miss you. Jim."

There were more notes and letters, and plenty of e-mails. Some of them would make her blush. He was going to divorce his wife, he said, and marry her.

When they were alone, he hugged her. He kissed her in his classroom and in a stairwell at school.

But there seemed to be a line he knew not to cross. He'd hold her in his arms, but she would remember later that his hands never wandered too low or too high.

One day, her parents were away, and Mr. Cypert drove her home in the evening. In her driveway, he kissed her in a different way. It was the first French kiss of her life.

A woman next door told the girl she'd seen her kissing the teacher. The girl said she was in love with Mr. Cypert and that he'd promised to marry her.

It was a mess. The neighbor's husband confronted Cypert and told him the relationship was inappropriate. Then he told the girl's father. Dad hit the roof. He was going to tell school officials.

The girl begged her father not to report it, saying it would ruin her senior year. It would cost her friends. And imagine what they would be whispering in the halls.

Instead, her father confronted Cypert and promised he would tell the school board if the teacher didn't leave his daughter alone.

Cypert told the girl he'd kill himself if she left him.

But the girl began to suspect something. While Cypert was professing his love to her, he was having a much more intimate relationship with one of her classmates.

Romantic predator

James Cypert had a method: Confide in someone and listen while she confided in him. Write her poems and letters. Profess his love. Say he was going to divorce his wife and marry her. Have a brief affair.

In 1998, another Columbus High teacher told Cypert that her marriage was falling apart. Cypert told her he was having marital trouble, too. He wrote her intimate poems and professed his love. They slept together and started seeing each other. Then Cypert suddenly broke it off.

Devastated, the woman was admitted to The Bradley Center for treatment.

In 2005, about the same time Cypert was having private lunches with Girl No. 1, another student fell ill and missed school.

Girl No. 2 was older than other seniors --- approaching her 19th birthday.

Mr. Cypert text-messaged her and offered to help her catch up after school. They began to talk about more than schoolwork. Girl No. 2 shared how she struggled with depression. So had Mr. Cypert. He told her about his experiences with the illness and gave her some tips. There was a connection. They kissed in his classroom.

Mr. Cypert --- Jim --- confessed his love. He was going to leave his wife and marry her.

"Thank you for opening a new door in my life," he wrote. "And thank you for finding in me something to love. Thank you for showing me that life has purpose and that love can be felt by the soul. Thank you for not running away from me and thank you for understanding and knowing and feeling me. Most of all, thank you for leaning forward and whispering, 'Say it . . . Say it.' Love, Jim."

On a teacher's in-service day, when students weren't required to report to school, Girl No. 2 showed up. They had sex in a portable classroom.

On other occasions, when his wife and children weren't home, Cypert and the girl would skip school. She would park at a church off River Road and he would pick her up and take her to his house.

They had sex there. If they couldn't be together, Cypert told her, he'd hurt himself.

But the girl began to suspect something. He was spending time with another student, Girl No. 1, even having lunch with her. She even sent Girl No. 1 an e-mail asking if she had a relationship with Mr. Cypert. She replied that she did not.

Then Girl No. 2 confronted Cypert, who explained that his lunch partner was having personal difficulties, too, and just needed a friend.

The secret

Now people were talking.

In April 2005, another English teacher, Carol Wingard, heard about the private lunches and considered Girl No. 1 to be "vulnerable," as she would later tell police. She called Principal Bryant at home and expressed her concern, and the principal asked Wingard to talk to the girl.

When Wingard confronted Girl No. 1, she denied having a relationship with Cypert.

Then Bryant ordered Cypert to end the lunch meetings, according to a letter of reprimand she would write him about two months later.

Meanwhile, Girl No. 2 began to reveal her sexual relationship with Cypert. She had a love interest, a married man she referred to by a code name. But she eventually let her tight circle of friends in on the secret: The man was Mr. Cypert.

Some of the girls in the inner circle tried to discourage her from seeing him.

But none of them told a teacher or administrator.

Graduation week

Spirits were high. The Class of 2005 was graduating.

But somewhere in all the rehearsing and reminiscing and celebrating, a senior boy put the puzzle together.

He had seen Cypert and Girl No. 2 flirting in class. Cypert and the girl exchanging hugs. The girl boasting to his girlfriend about "the older guy."

Finally, his girlfriend told him that a month earlier Girl No. 2 had confessed she was having an affair with Cypert. The boy wanted to go to school officials. The girlfriend didn't want to betray a trust. The young couple had a fight.

The boy went to a school counselor and then to Bryant. Later, in a police interview, he would say he told the principal that Girl No. 2 told his girlfriend she was having an affair with Cypert. He said he pleaded with Bryant not to say anything until after graduation.

Bryant called in the girlfriend. They have different accounts of that meeting.

More than two years later, in a September 2007 memo to Don Cooper, the Muscogee County School District's chief human resources officer, Bryant recalled that the girlfriend thought Girl No. 2 was "involved with an 'older guy' that worked at TSYS." Bryant wrote that the girlfriend and three other students the principal met with individually "appeared shocked" at her questions and denied knowing anything about the boy's claim.

"I had no suspicion of any wrong doing on the part of James Cypert at that time and decided that this was just senior gossip at the end of the school year," Bryant wrote.

But the girlfriend would tell Detective Dent-Fitzpatrick that she did inform Bryant of her friend's secret affair with Cypert, and told the principal she'd seen photos the girl had taken of Cypert in his home.

"I begged her not to say anything until after graduation," the girlfriend told the detective.

In separate interviews with police, the boy and his girlfriend said they told Bryant they would provide a written account after graduation.

Next, Bryant pulled Girl No. 2 out of graduation practice and asked if she indeed was involved with Cypert.

In her 2007 memo to Cooper, Bryant recalled that on May 20, 2005, the girl said Cypert had text-messaged her after her illness, hugged her occasionally to console her and had told her parents that she needed counseling. He was a "good friend to her and had helped her a lot, especially during her depression," Bryant wrote of the girl's response. "He had counseled her on several occasions. She stated that was all there was to the relationship."

After graduation practice, Bryant met with Cypert in her office.

Then, according to her memo, she made a phone call.

By state law, if she had "reasonable cause to believe" a student had been abused, Bryant should have reported it to a child welfare agency providing protective services or the police or district attorney.

She called Don Cooper at the school district and told him, according to her memo, that she had investigated the matter, decided "that this was just gossip at the end of the school year," and asked if "there was anything else I needed to do."

Cooper advised her to document the meeting with Cypert in a letter of reprimand.

In the letter --- dated June 16, 2005, and later attached to the 2007 memo --- Bryant wrote that she told Cypert of the boy's allegations and of her meetings with the other students. Cypert acknowledged that he text-messaged Girl No. 2 and "admitted" that "both shared some common issues (depression), and that you were a support system for one another."

"The conduct on your part is unacceptable and unprofessional and should never have occurred nor should it occur in the future with any other student," Bryant wrote. "It is of grave concern to me since it was also reported to me in April 2005 that you were spending a great deal of time during lunch with another female student in your classroom."

Bryant then told Cypert not to text-message any student, not to touch students "in any way," not to spend time alone with female students, not to ask students personal questions or share personal information about himself, and to refer students with problems to the school counselor instead of counseling them himself.

Bryant and Cypert each signed the letter. The investigation was closed.

That summer, Cypert continued a relationship with each girl. He'd meet Girl No. 1 in a church parking lot off Macon Road, and they'd sit in the car and talk, she said. Their relationship moved to fondling.

For a while, Cypert saw Girl No. 2 as well, but then broke it off. She became "depressed and humiliated with herself," she later would tell police. She cut deep gashes into her arms.

Both girls would enroll at Columbus State University, where they again crossed paths, and told each other about their relationships with Mr. Cypert.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend and girlfriend waited for Bryant to ask for their written accounts. They later told police she never did.

Going to police

When Girl No. 1 finally went to the police, more than 18 months had passed since the 2005 graduation.

On that December day, the young woman told Detective Dent-Fitzpatrick how the popular teacher had confided in her and shown her where he'd slit his wrists. She produced e-mails from Cypert containing love poems.

She told about the kisses in the stairwell and in the classroom and in her driveway when her parents were gone. She told how she'd pleaded with her father not to expose the relationship.

And she told of a teacher who'd confronted her about the lunches alone with Cypert, and how she'd denied everything.

Dent-Fitzpatrick asked the young woman question after question. There was a line, and she wanted to know if Cypert had crossed it.

Girl No. 1 told her exactly what the teacher had done, exactly where he had put his hands.

"This is inappropriate --- there's no doubt about that," Dent-Fitzpatrick told the young woman.

But according to the law, Cypert had not put his hands too high or too low. And a French kiss was not considered a sexual act.

Dent-Fitzpatrick and Assistant District Attorney Stacey Jackson would conclude that although Girl No. 1 was younger than 18 --- the age at which mandatory reporting of child abuse is required of school teachers and administrators under Georgia law --- the acts she described as occurring prior to her graduation would not meet the requirements for prosecution under the law.

But the investigation wasn't over.

There was Girl No. 2, now her classmate at CSU. And Girl No. 2 had told Girl No.1 she'd had sex with Mr. Cypert.

The detective took down the name.

COMING MONDAY

PART 2: A denial gives way to tears, a teacher is arrested and the investigation turns to school administrators. Read it in tomorrow's paper.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

James Cypert: Popular English teacher in relationships with two students at the same time

Girl No. 1: 16-year-old senior who had private lunches with Cypert; 17 at graduation

Girl No. 2: 18-year-old who became sexually involved with Cypert; 19 at graduation

The teacher: Columbus High teacher with whom Cypert had an affair in 1998

The neighbor: Woman who confronted Cypert after seeing him kiss Girl No. 1

The father: Girl No. 1's father, who confronted Cypert instead of telling authorities

Carol Wingard: Teacher who told the principal of Cypert's lunches with Girl No. 1

Susan Bryant: Columbus High principal who interviewed students and Cypert about his alleged affair with Girl No. 2

The boy: Student who told principal during graduation week that Cypert was having affair with student

His girlfriend: Student in whom Girl No. 2 had confided about her relationship with Cypert

Don Cooper: Muscogee County School District's chief human resources officer, who advised Bryant to document her meeting with Cypert

Detective Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick: Sex crimes detective who interviewed Girl No. 1 and later Girl No. 2

Stacey Jackson: Assistant District Attorney who with Dent-Fitzpatrick determined that Cypert's actions with Girl No. 1 were not prosecutable

WHEN IT HAPPENED:

A timeline of the case

January-February 2005: Cypert begins spending time alone with Girl No. 1 and Girl No. 2.

April 2005: Carol Wingard, a Columbus High teacher, tells Principal Bryant that Cypert is having private lunches in his classroom with Girl No. 1. Bryant asks Wingard to talk to the girl, who denies having a relationship with Cypert.

May 17-20, 2005: A graduating senior tells Principal Bryant that Girl No. 2 told his girlfriend she was having a sexual relationship with Cypert. Bryant questions the girlfriend and Girl No. 2's circle of friends.

May 20, 2005: Bryant questions Girl No. 1, who denies having a sexual relationship with Cypert. Bryant also questions Cypert, who also denies it.

May 20, 2005: The date Bryant recalls calling MCSD's Don Cooper and telling him she had "no suspicion" and "decided this was just senior gossip." Cooper advises Bryant to give Cypert a formal letter of reprimand.

May 21, 2005: Columbus High's Class of 2005 graduates in the Columbus Civic Center.

June 13, 2005: Date of signatures on a letter of reprimand in which Bryant warns Cypert not to, among other things, touch students, counsel students about their problems, or talk to students about his personal life. The letter is headed "Violation of Element Seven: Personal Conduct While in Performance of School Duties."

Summer 2005: Cypert continues his relationships with Girl No. 1 and Girl No. 2, both of whom are now graduates.

May 20, 2006: The Columbus High Class of 2006 graduates.

Dec. 6, 2006: Girl No. 1, now 18, goes to police and tells Detective Dent-Fitzpatrick about her relationship with Cypert.

April 19, 2007: Dent-Fitzpatrick interviews Girl No. 2, now 21, who initially denies and then admits sexual relationship with Cypert.

April 19, 2007: Cypert found unconscious in the back of his pickup truck, his wrists slit.

April 26, 2007: Dent-Fitzpatrick interviews a graduate, who says he told Bryant during graduation week that he'd heard from his girlfriend that Girl No. 2 was having sex with Cypert. The detective also interviews the girlfriend, who says she told Bryant about the affair.

April 27, 2007: Dent-Fitzpatrick obtains warrant for the arrest of Cypert, charging him with sexual assault against a person in custody.

April 30, 2007: Dent-Fitzpatrick and Muscogee County Deputy Sheriff P. Rivera arrest Cypert at Columbus High School.

May 21, 2007: Dent-Fitzpatrick interviews Principal Susan Bryant, who tells the detective how she heard allegations of Girl No. 2's affair with Cypert and how she investigated the rumors and then reported her findings to the district's Cooper. Dent-Fitzpatrick tells Bryant that conducting the investigation herself and not reporting the allegations to authorities could consistitute a violation of state law.

Aug. 19, 2007: Cypert is indicted by the Muscogee County grand jury on three counts of sexual assault against a person in custody.

Sept. 20, 2007: Date on a memorandum entitled "Recap of Rumor" sent by Bryant to the school district's Cooper. It contains Bryant's recollection of her actions during graduation week of 2005 and includes her letter of reprimand to Cypert dated June 16, 2005, and the letter from her lawyer to police dated July 13, 2007.

Nov. 30, 2007: Cypert pleads guilty to sexual assault against a student in custody and is sentenced to a year in prison, followed by five years on probation, and stripped of his teaching certificate.

Dec. 13, 2007: The Georgia Professional Standards Commission reports Cypert has surrendered his teaching certificate.

Jan. 22, 2008: The school board approves changes to the district's policy on reporting sexual abuse.

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