St. Matthew's postpones final exams following dispute

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 12, No. 15            April 18, 2002

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The ongoing situation between shareholders and St. Matthew's University School of Medicine (SMUSM) heated up last Sunday morning over the removal of buildings from the school's campus. Unfortunately, as a result of the drama which unraveled and "to protect his student body" St. Matthew's President and Academic Dean Henry M. Haire made a decision to "suspend final exam week and ask that students of St. Matthew's make plans to leave the island of Ambergris Caye as soon as possible."

    The dispute between the shareholders began last June when the founder of St. Matthew's, Dr. Jeffrey Sersland, was removed as President in what he termed a "hostile takeover" by the Board of Directors of St. Matthew's. One of Sersland's lawsuits filed against the "company" was served this past Friday to St. Matthew's administration by San Pedro Police Inspector Linden Flowers. At that same time, St. Matthew's staff informed the inspector of plans to relocate campus buildings to other property. 

    St. Matthew's Shareholder Seferino Paz Jr., acting on behalf of the shareholders regarding a commitment allegedly made by St. Matthew's Board Chairman Michael Harris to the Belize Bank to not destroy or remove property, hired security to uphold the commitment. In a conversation with The San Pedro Sun, Mr. Paz stated his only motivation behind this action was to secure the property as he was the "guarantor" of a loan secured by St. Matthew's which amounted to $500,000. He was concerned they would "skip out" without paying. Last Sunday's conflict arose from St. Matthew's administration plans to allow the removal of a campus structure before allegedly fulfilling financial obligations agreed upon between the school and Belize Bank. After speaking to various schools and religious organizations it was learned these structures were being given away by St. Matthew's as gifts to the community.

     According to reports the incident began at approximately 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning as construction workers began to remove a building on the school's campus. Seferino Paz Jr. alerted his security of the attempt. According to LAG Security's Gene Lopez, a team of five female and four male security guards were dispatched to observe the perimeter of the school and to alert their supervisor if anyone attempted to remove the said property. Stated Mr. Lopez, "More women personnel were dispatched to ensure that students were not alarmed by their presence. They (security) were there simply to observe and notify their supervisor should any attempts be made to remove property." St. Matthew's Director of University Services, Sebastian Guilbard tells a different story stating several witnesses were present when a female security guard entered the school library and told them they had one hour to leave. When questioned about this, Lopez denied that any of his personnel entered the library.

    Interviewing Inspector Linden Flowers of the San Pedro Police Department on the ensuing events he informed The San Pedro Sun that shortly after 8:00 a.m. he was notified of a situation developing at the medical school by both Dr. Jeffrey Sersland and Sebastian Guilbard. He immediately dispatched a team of officers to the location. Inspector Flowers stated that when he arrived on the scene, he was met by Mr. Guilbard and then he summoned Dr. Sersland and Mr. Paz who were next door, inside the office of Banyan Bay. When questioned whether, at that time, there was any report made of anyone using "threatening words" or incidents concerning the students, Inspector Flowers replied there was nothing mentioned whatsoever. He informed that the only interaction witnessed was when students questioned security as to what was transpiring and they were handed an information sheet, which he subsequently confiscated from security personnel. It read, "Notice to Students and SMU Staff: Due to the outstanding financial obligations of St. Matthew's University, the school will not be allowed to remove or destroy any property on said premises. A commitment was made by Michael A. Harris Director of said company, that no destruction or removal of property would occur until financial matters were resolved in a professional manner. Unfortunately, this commitment has not occurred and thus all activities to remove or destroy property on said premises is not permitted. Therefore, shareholders of SMU have decided to halt all such activities in order to protect the interests of the company. This matter shall be handled in a civil manner in the Supreme Court of Belize."

   Inspector Flowers then informed this newspaper that after questioning both parties regarding what had transpired, it was acknowledged that no legal documents were presented to stop the removal of property. Inspector Flowers recalled that because there was an active lawsuit pending between the parties, this should prevent any property being moved, and negotiations were held. As a result, Mr. Paz agreed to withdraw his security and Mr. Guilbard consented to stop the removal of property, "to ensure tranquility for the students." Following this, Inspector Flowers stated he confirmed this agreement with Belize Bank and then Mr. Guilbard contacted Michael Harris to update him on the situation. The inspector stated Harris responded that he would remove any property he wished, to which Mr. Paz replied his security would increase, thus necessitating the inspector to hold further negotiations between Harris, Paz and Guilbard. This meeting resulted in instituting the already previously agreed upon terms.

    Inspector Flowers stated he informed LAG Security their services would not be needed and asked Sergeant Augustine of the San Pedro Police Department to remain on the premises until 11:00 a.m. to ensure the peace. He said several police patrols of the area were conducted revealing no activity and when he made checks with a student representing each semester class later in the afternoon, there were no complaints of threats. Contrary to this, a statement was made the next morning by St. Matthew's alleging seven students had been threatened and that sworn statements were on file at the medical school. Contacting SMUSM President Haire, he informed this newspaper that due to his respect for the student's confidentiality and concern for their safety, he could not reveal their names, but stated that he had three sworn statements on file. As a result, The San Pedro Sun was unable to confirm these incidents. 

    A statement issued by President Henry M. Haire explaining the incident to his students stated that, "a group of private security officers came upon our campus and insisted that our students leave within one hour. In addition they made the statement that they would prevent our students from coming to the campus to take exams. Furthermore, they made demands that all efforts to remove any structure be halted immediately or they would enforce this ėtakeover' of the campus". Upon investigating the alleged threats of "bodily harm," harassment and theft of belongings, it was learned from Inspector Flowers that one incident of knocking on a student's windows was reported two weeks ago. He continued that one other student reported a burglary which investigation showed to be the result of an open window. 

    The last day of St. Matthew's extended lease was stated as April 30th, 2002. Questioned why it was necessary to dismantle the structure during "final exams week" which ends this Friday, SMUSM President Haire stated the smaller building was removed "in order to make room for bigger equipment to come in at a later date." He said this activity in "no way" disrupted campus activities as much as the "invasion" of their campus did and that there was a formal complaint being lodged against the "invaders". Questioning why the removal could not have taken place after the financial "commitment" was finalized to avoid confrontation and the disruption of students' exams it was stated that this was a matter that the academic administration was not involved with.

       Allegations were made that this incident was a ploy by St. Matthew's to incite a panic so that students who wished to transfer to other medical schools on the island would feel pressured to leave. A statement by President Haire issued to students stated, "For those who are going to Maine, Grand Cayman or other locations, a specific date and time will be designated for the taking of your final exams. You will be asked to leave an address and future location as well as an e-mail address." The statement also revealed a credit of $100 toward tuition for expenses incurred because of departure changes would be given. The statement also provided an 800-number in Florida for further inquiries. In an interview with President Haire he told The San Pedro Sun that arrangements were made for certain fifth semester students who chose to remain and take exams despite the "threatening situation." He also confirmed that transfer documents could be supplied to those who had completed their requirements.

    The San Pedro Sun was informed on Tuesday by Mr. Seferino Paz that St. Matthew's fulfilled their financial obligations to the Belize Bank on Monday morning, allowing structures to be removed from the property. Questioned as to Mr. Sersland's involvement in all of this, Mr. Paz stated that he first notified Sersland on Sunday morning. He further attested that Mr. Sersland was never involved in negotiations except to defend his presence as a St. Matthew's shareholder, and denied allegations that Sersland was involved in hiring security personnel. Mr. Paz stated any other financial arrangements between the shareholders of St. Matthew's and Director Michael Harris are a matter for the Belize courts to decide.

    This situation between St. Matthew's and its shareholders has been described as "the worst divorce in history."
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