At Tampa's Berkeley Prep, prominent lawyer and headmaster quarrel over security

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 jbarry@tampabay.com.

Email excerpts

Here are excerpts from three of the email messages involving a dispute over security at Berkeley Preparatory School.

Dec. 19, from lawyer Barry Cohen to headmaster Joseph Seivold and others:

"... You're probably not surprised to get this email from me. If I had to guess, the last few days you've said to yourself or others, I'll probably be hearing from Barry — you were right. The tragedy in Connecticut exemplified the fear that I spoke to you and the security committee about a year ago. You and the committee were very nice and assured me that security was under control at Berkeley and I should just feel comfortable about that.

Not wanting to make any more waves, I did not pursue it. Joe, I am still concerned about the security at Berkeley although I certainly see the reassuring presence of security people. Still, I do not think that studies and evaluations have been done to ensure everything that can be done is being done. I don't accept the proposition that if somebody wants to get in they can. I don't accept the proposition that you can't do a lot more to make all of the parents feel more comfortable to protect our children from the Lanzas of the world. ..."

Dec. 20, from Seivold to Berkeley parents:

“Yesterday afternoon, many of you received an email blast from The Cohen Law Group. Therein, Barry Cohen, a Berkeley parent, makes a series of provocative comments about his views on Berkeley's practices as it relates to the security of our students. Please know that this message was unsanctioned by our school. Mr. Cohen's email contains statements with which both the Board of Trustees and I vehemently disagree. Furthermore, the inclusion of students as some of the recipients of such an email is viewed as incredibly inappropriate."

Dec. 20, from Cohen to other Berkeley parents:

"Yesterday afternoon I forwarded to the parents of Berkeley Preparatory School a copy of an email that I sent to the headmaster. The purpose of my letter was simply to express my concern to the headmaster and invite other parents who may have similar concerns to become more conversant with policies and provide input regarding school security that we believe is important for the protection of our children and the Berkeley family.

I did not intend to be malicious, disrespectful or provocative.

Mr. Seivold saw fit to send a message out to the Berkeley parents that I believe to be unfair to me and mischaracterizes my communication to him. Because Mr. Seivold sent this response out to the parents, I feel compelled to forward my response for sake of completeness. ...."

At Tampa's Berkeley Prep, prominent lawyer and headmaster quarrel over security 12/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 11:49pm]

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