TAMPA — It's not easy to jolt Tampa's sedately exclusive Berkeley Preparatory School, but lawyer Barry Cohen managed this week with emails he sent to the headmaster and parents questioning safety policies in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre.
"We no longer have the luxury of trying to balance what's reasonable and what's not reasonable at the expense of compromise," wrote Cohen, whose 11-year-old son, Barry, attends Berkeley. "… What we want is to deter and make damn sure we stop any misfit from trying to kill our children like what happened at Sandy Hook."
Headmaster Joseph Seivold called it "an email blast." It provoked him to rap the lawyer's knuckles in a rebuttal email to parents. Then in a series of increasingly acrimonious exchanges between the two men, Seivold warned that the Cohen family, presumably including son Barry, could be asked to leave.
Seivold asserted that Cohen violated Berkeley rules by using a school directory to email parents for an "unsolicited campaign." He said Cohen's message "traumatized" students, although the lawyer denied sending it to children.
Seivold demanded they meet by Jan. 9 "at the latest" — even if at night, or early morning, or on a weekend. Cohen said Thursday he's willing to meet.
Directed at one of Tampa's most famous arguers, the headmaster's emails had no chance of being the last word. In an interview, Cohen called them a "complete overreaction," saying, "Why don't parents have the right to know about security? What's he got to hide?"
Then, in another email Thursday night to Berkeley parents, he called the headmaster a bully.
"I am not at all intimidated by the implied threats that they will kick my son out of school in an effort to send a message to parents that if you don't 'behave' your kids may get kicked out," Cohen wrote. "It appears to be the kind of bullying that Berkeley proudly claims to have zero tolerance."
Cohen's emails included a Good Morning America video that showed extraordinary security measures taken at a Skokie, Ill., elementary school. They included a camera-equipped doorbell, instant criminal background checks and surveillance smartphones.
While he complimented Seivold on the school's "reassuring presence of security people," Cohen offered to help organize "a committee of concerned parents" and recruit experts for additional measures.
"As you know," he wrote, "this young misfit named Canto came within a hair of creating an equally unspeakable catastrophic event right here at our own Freedom High School."
Cohen was referring to Jared Cano, the Tampa teen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for bombmaking and threats.
"Sadly," Cohen continued, "it is predictable that the troubled psychopaths and other disturbed misfits all around us are compelled to act out to satisfy some disturbed insatiable need which outweighs any sense of common decency or empathy."
Headmaster Seivold, who wrote that he and school trustees "vehemently disagree" with Cohen, was said to be away from the school and not available for an interview Thursday.
Berkeley's director of communications, Jeremy Canady, said the administration objected to Cohen's direct appeal to parents.
"Our policy is to address these matters privately."
In his latest email Thursday night, Cohen told Berkeley parents that it's too late for that. Because the Tampa Bay Times had independently received copies of some of the emails, he said, he was sending parents all the correspondence under "the doctrine of completeness."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]