Muscogee Superior Court Judge Frank Jordan Jr. has ordered the Muscogee County School District to disclose a letter in which lawyers filed notice of intent to file claims against the school system on behalf of victims of a Columbus High School teacher convicted of sexual abuse.
More than six months after the Muscogee County School District received the letter, Jordan ruled Tuesday for the Ledger-Enquirer in i t s q u e s t fo r rel e a s e o f t h e document under the Georgia Open Records Act. The Jan. 25 request for the letter was made 17 days after it was written by attorney C. Frederick Overby.
Overby and attorney Gary Bruce represent two former students of James Cypert Jr., who pleaded guilty Nov. 30 to sexual assault against a person in custody. One student, an 18-year-old when the consensual sexual acts occurred in 2005, testified during Cypert’s guilty plea session.
Cypert was sentenced to a year in prison, followed by five years on probation, and has been stripped of his teaching certificate.
Ledger-Enquirer Executive Editor Ben Holden welcomed the judge’s ruling, but said the issue should never have had to go that far.
“I continue to be perplexed over why our local government and their counsel periodically flaunt basic open records principles and choose instead to err on the side of secrecy,” Holden said. “I think the taxpayers have a right to know who’s trying to stick their hands into our collective pocketbook.
“I’m frustrated by expensive, wasteful litigation that merely yields the result that the public was entitled to in the first place.”
Atlanta attorney Walter Bush, who represented the newspaper, also said the issue was “not even a close call” and should never have had to reach the courts.
“It was an unnecessary expenditure of public funds and an unnecessary effort on the part of the paper,” Bush said. “It is not the intent of the law that the public has to sue an agency any time they want to get a public record.
“We just don’t feel there was ever any question this was a public letter. It was a public record and should have been produced,” he said.
The attorney said the newspaper agreed months ago to receiving a copy of the letter that redacted the names of the victims of the sexual assault — the only condition of release that Jordan ordered in his ruling requiring release of the document.
“The court agreed with our legal position,” Bush said.
The school district, represented by attorney Greg Ellington of the Hatcher-Stubbs firm, argued that the letter was exempt from the Open Records Act because it was a file “similar to a medical or veterinary record,” it contains information the release of which would constitute an invasion of privacy, disclosure of the letter would have a “chilling effect” o n a c h a n n el o f communication, and that a balancing test of public versus private interest would require nondisclosure.
Jordan’s ruling rejected the school district’s arguments. The idea of the letter’s release constituting an invasion of personal privacy of the victims because of the acts described within it was particularly rejected.
Most of the letter does not discuss “secluded or secret facts,” he wrote, and those acts that are described within it “ . . . are matters of legitimate public interest since they involve a former teacher and former students performing sexual acts at or near a local school,” Jordan wrote.
In addition to redacting the names of the two victims, the judge also redacted the name of another Columbus High School employee. The person was named in a paragraph warning that attorneys for the two victims find that name coming up during discussions with potential witnesses.
“This is not a situation which we believe Columbus High will be able to sell as simply the bad conduct of a single employee,” the letter states.
A f t e r a p p l y i n g t h e balancing test between public and private interests, Jordan ruled, “The court finds that the public interest favors disclosure of the letter with the above-mentioned redactions.”Letter’s contents
The letter puts the school district on notice that Overby and Bruce represent the two victims in their individual civil claims and their p a re n t s o n l o s s o f consortium/services claims. The letter was sent to the school district, Columbus High School Principal Susan Bryant and Cypert.
Although interested in compensation in the form of damages, the two young women are also interested in causing “positive change” in the way Columbus High administrators and the school district have dealt with such problems, Overby wrote.
“They have indicated that they would consider resolving the matter if they can be compensated as Gary and I may advise them, and if the school district will take steps to alleviate the culture which has existed for Columbus High for a long time, and enact policies to make sure this does not happen again in the Muscogee County School District,” the letter states.
The document also warns that the actual story of what Cypert did to the students “is pretty disgusting,” and that the media takes a great interest in such cases. He invites the district to express whether there is interest in reaching a settlement, “or something they feel the need to litigate.”
Overby said Wednesday no suit has yet been filed.
In fact, he said he and Bruce have allowed school district representatives to “informally interview one of the girls” and are in the process of arranging for the other young woman to provide her viewpoint of what happened and how, and what they went through.
“Obviously, once they interview the other girl, I’m going to ask them what they want to do in terms of trying to resolve the matter,” Overby said.
The attorney said extensive conversations with the women and their parents have focused more on a desire to see that measures are taken to ensure no other students have to go through what they went through than a d e s i re fo r m o n e t a r y damages.
“They’re more interested in that angle than in hurting Columbus High School or tarnishing its reputation or anything like that,” Overby said.
“We wanted to give the school district a fair opportunity to address this matter outside the context of litigation,” he said.