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Documents detail abuse at Florida School for Boys

John Brodnax wishes the truth were so easy to ignore. How nice it would be to forget Marianna and the blood he left there.

In the late 1950s, the orphan from south St. Petersburg says, he was beaten separately by seven grown men swinging a stiff leather strap at the state-run Florida School for Boys.

Fifty-four years later, his memory of those trips to the little building they called the White House is as sharp as glass.

"It was an experience you can't forget."

That's why it angers the 67-year-old retired trucker that so many continue to doubt the abuse and to deny it.

One of those old guards, Troy Tidwell, called it "spanking" in a deposition for a lawsuit that Brodnax and more than 300 other men brought against him, which was dismissed last week. He said boys got between 10 and 12 licks, no more.

Now, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nears the end of its investigation into the allegations, long-forgotten news reports offer more evidence that Brodnax and the others, called the White House Boys, are telling the truth.

• • •

In 1958, the now-defunct Miami News published a three-part series on the beatings: Marianna's Two Faces. Recently made available online, the stories by Jane Wood describe the resignation of seven psychologists in a two-year period in objection to the "routine beating of boys."

"They are beatings delivered with the full force of a grown man," said one of them, Dr. Eugene Byrd. "They wear out the straps on the boys."

Byrd said 15 to 20 boys were beaten every Saturday.

No one denied that, the newspaper said, but staffers disputed the severity.

"I don't think you can paddle a boy hard enough to do any good without leaving some discoloration," said assistant superintendent H.B. Mitchell, "but I know of no bleeding after a paddling."

Florida law at the time did not allow beating or corporal punishment for adults in jail. It did allow whipping or strapping children. But the children's bureau of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare said in its guidelines for juvenile lockups: "Corporal punishment should not be tolerated in any form."

A study of 250 boys committed to Marianna showed they had received 691 whippings among them, the Miami News reported. Eleven-year-old boys had received 38 percent of the beatings, and 17-year-old boys received just 3 percent.

Gov. Leroy Collins set up a committee to investigate, then cleared the school administration.

The superintendent at the time, Arthur G. Dozier, for whom the school is now named, said paddling was better than the alternative: solitary confinement. He added that the school was setting up a psychiatric unit, which would cut down dramatically on the spankings.

• • •

Six years later, in 1964, a reporter for the Miami Herald visited Dozier and quickly heard about the White House.

"It is not on the tour," wrote reporter Joy Reese Shaw. "Nobody likes to talk about what goes on inside — and when they do, the sting of the whip seems to split through the words."

Shaw talked to a boy from Miami sent up for bicycle theft. He had epilepsy and an IQ of 74. He had been whipped seven times in 11 months.

"For the last four sessions of the legislature Marianna has requested a security detention building, and been denied," she wrote. "It would cost $198,320.00 to end the floggings."

• • •

Four years later, in 1968, a state supervisor for the Marianna school witnessed a beating that, all these years later, still makes his blood pressure rise.

Reached recently by phone, Audie E. Langston said he didn't want to talk. "I just happened to be there when they caught a kid who was a runner. They caught him and took him into that building and one of the guys said, 'You should see this,' " Langston said in a short interview. "It was not a good thing. The people who were doing it thought they needed that method of control."

Back then, Langston wrote a letter to his boss, O.J. Keller. He called what he saw "sickening."

"A young boy [was] taken into a stark, bare, dimly lit room where he was compelled to lie on a small cot and receive licks with a heavy leather strap. At the time the strap was being wielded by a man who was at least 6 feet, 3 inches and weighed well over 200 pounds. . . The child quivers and writhes. . ."

The letter, which Keller made public, spurred a push to ban corporal punishment.

A former house father at the school also sent Keller a letter, published in the Miami News, saying, "The belt falls between eight and 100 times. After about the tenth stroke, the seams of the sturdiest blue jeans begin to separate and numerous times the boys' skin is broken to the extent that stitches are required."

A supervisor who trained for a year at Marianna described a boy's buttocks as "bleeding profusely; the skin was broken, and the color of his buttocks was green, blue, red and purplish . . . It reminded me of the Dark Ages."

The state did outlaw corporal punishment.

But a year later, in 1969, the reform school superintendent told state legislators that bringing back the strap would cut down on the runaways. He was fired.

The town came to his defense: a state senator and representative, the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the newspaper publisher. He was reinstated.

• • •

John Brodnax ran from the school in 1960.

He stole an Oldsmobile and blew smoke up U.S. 231 until he crashed in Ozark, Ala.

"I wasn't going back," he said.

He tried to tell people about the abuse. Nobody believed him.

Brodnax can't understand how it took so long for the state to quit beating children.

"I went through life being a mean, nasty irritable person," he said. "I've come to realize that all of us were a lot alike when we come out of there. I have animosity in my heart for the people that run the school. I have animosity toward the state for not doing anything about it.

"It wasn't like people didn't know."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

To read archived newspaper stories on the beatings at Marianna, and for the Times multimedia report "For Their Own Good," go to magazine.tampabay.com.

Documents detail abuse at Florida School for Boys 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2014 12:23pm]
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