COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday signed a bill addressing what one lawmaker described as a “dark chapter” in Florida history at a now-shuttered reform school.
The measure (SB 708), one of 14 bills Scott signed into law Wednesday, will allocate money for the reburial of remains removed from the 1,400-acre site of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The bill also establishes plans for a memorial at the reform school, which operated from 1900 to 2011 in the Jackson County community of Marianna.
Hidden for years
In 2008, four former residents of the Marianna-based school for delinquent boys demanded the governor and state and federal attorneys investigate. They were convinced the 32 unmarked graves at the school were the bodies of boys abused and killed decades ago.
The four men, all of whom suffered from brutal beatings while students at the school, sent letters to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney general alleging that the boys were victims of state-sponsored hate crimes and murder.
Their goal, they said, is for ‘’every last child, Caucasian, Hispanic and African-American who disappeared from the Florida School for Boys (to be) accounted for and, whatever relatives he may have, be given peace at last,’’ said Michael O’McCarthy, who resided at the school in 1958-59.
The unmarked graves were on what officials used to call ‘’the colored side’’ of the school and the men believed they remain unmarked ‘’to hide the nature of those children’s deaths,’’ O’McCarthy said.
‘’Given the institution’s meticulous records … there is no practical reason that the identity of the children buried there was not recorded,’’ he said.
O’McCarthy led a group of former Dozier residents called ‘’The White House Boys.’’ He believed the location of the grave provides reasonable evidence that the victims are African-American male children.
Dick Colon of Baltimore, one of the White House Boys, recalls how he was working in the laundry in the late 1950s with some Black boys. Colon went into the restroom and when he came out, the room had been cleared and one Black boy was tumbling in the dryer.
“We never saw him again,’’ he said. ‘’I think about it very often. … I feel guilty. I could have walked over there and tried to give him some help.’’
But he knew, he added, that he would suffer beatings, abuse or worse if he had because they were told they were never to talk to the Black boys or they would be subject to corporal punishment.
Bodies hauled away
Roger Kiser of Brunswick, Ga., believes he witnessed two to three deaths during his stay at the school from 1958 and 1959 and again in 1960. One was a White boy shaking cream to make butter under the dining table, when a school attendant suspected him of masturbating. He was taken away “and never seen again.”
Another time, he saw one of the school staff members order two boys into the tumble dryer. Later, their bodies were hauled away and he and others were ordered to say nothing about it.
They were warned, Kiser said, that if they caught us talking to them “we would be taken to the White House and beaten. Corporal punishment was the means by which they controlled us,’’ he said. “We lived in daily fear.’’
The men also called for the investigation to include the school’s use of the boys for slave labor, sexual abuse, sex trafficking and kidnapping for sexual assault.
Finally, in January, a 168-page report by University of South Florida researchers was presented to Scott and the Cabinet on excavations at the site.
The report, which doesn’t verify any students were killed by Dozier staff, outlines the 51 sets of remains unearthed from an area known as the Boot Hill Burial Ground.
Seven of the bodies were identified through DNA testing. Four were turned over to relatives and buried in family cemeteries. The rest of the remains are housed at the Tampa university.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation had determined there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether the allegations of long-ago abuse were true, though other investigations by independent groups have continued.
“This law finally ends a tragic chapter in Florida’s history,” Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a prepared statement. “It buries the dead with dignity and establishes a permanent reminder so that the atrocities the children endured at Dozier are neither forgotten nor repeated.”
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said the legislative effort is a way to say “we’re sorry.”
“It’s a dark chapter in Florida’s history,” Williams said. “We sent young men there to be reformed.
It was a reform school. We didn’t send young men there to die.”
“There were young men, Black and White, went in thinking they were going to be reformed and come back home, and they never made it out,” Williams said.
The law provides up to $7,500 per family for funeral, reburial and grave-marker costs and calls for the creation of a task force that would make recommendations about an appropriate memorial for the site and how to rebury remains that are unidentified or unclaimed.
Rep. Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said in a prepared statement the law is intended to provide “a measure of justice.”
“These boys and these families should not be forgotten, nor should they be further victimized,” Narain said. “This bill, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, represents the right thing to do and will also serve as an ongoing reminder that such injustice should never happen again.”
Three lawmakers – Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, and Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven – voted against the proposal. Tobia had sought to reduce the per-family payment to $2,000.
The Dozier funding drew support from former Gov. Bob Martinez and members of the state Cabinet.
‘Cloaked in secrecy’
During the January Cabinet meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam offered apologies to the generations of boys who suffered hardships at the reform school while saying a new use is needed for the land, whether recreational, educational or even for veterans’ services.
“Those who spent time at Dozier and the loved ones of those who died at Dozier have for far too long had their history cloaked in secrecy,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
Mary Ellen Klas of McClatchy Newspapers (TNS) and Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.