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Lawmakers to consider: Is it time to close the Dozier School for Boys?

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's oldest reform school has survived a century of failure and scandal. Now lawmakers once again are confronted with an uncomfortable question: Is it time to shut the place down?

At the start of another legislative session, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna is again struggling to keep kids safe. The school notorious for decades-old abuse has failed its state evaluation two years in a row. In the past five years, the Times has learned, boys have been beaten by guards, denied medical care and prevented from reporting abuse. The school has employed a mentally challenged man, a man who came to work high on cocaine and a man who broke his wife's shoulder. The Department of Juvenile Justice last year forced out its sixth superintendent in eight years.

Now comes a new batch of calls to close the school. Lawmakers this week will consider the future of Dozier, which houses 103 boys at a cost of $10 million, or about $100,000 per boy. But the Legislature has failed for 100 years to offer more than temporary relief for Dozier's problems.

"Dozier exists because of history," Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, an advocacy and watchdog group, said of the politically protected facility. "It doesn't exist because there is any compelling reason to keep it open.''

Budget woes may provide incentive to shut the school.

In January, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate committee that recommends funding for corrections institutions, asked DJJ to come up with a plan to absorb the closure. "We have to make some very serious decisions, and this looks like a no-brainer," he said.

Closing the school would mean lost jobs in Jackson County. The school is one of the top 18 employers there, with 192 full-time staff and salaries amounting to $7 million, the report said.

"Most of these employees would become unemployed in a very difficult job market,'' it said.

Crist acknowledged last week that Dozier's troubled past figures into the equation.

"It causes us to pause and look more closely at how are they operating," he said. "Have they overcome the problems that have plagued it in the past? And is it functioning at the high levels and standards that we require today?"

The school has been protected for decades by North Florida politicians citing job loss and economic impact.

There were calls for closure in 1915, when fire swept through a locked dorm and killed eight boys. There were calls in 1918, when boys were found starving and dying of influenza.

"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this kind?" said an editorial that year in the Tampa Tribune.

Floridians were outraged in the 1950s and '60s, when word spread that guards were beating boys bloody with a leather strap.

"It is time that we quit being shocked every time an outsider visits Marianna," wrote an Evening Independent editor in 1969. "It is time we found out why such conditions continue to exist and who is responsible for them."

There were more calls for closure in the '80s, when boys were hogtied and held in isolation for weeks. In 1988, a consultant recommended the school be closed. His proposal was swiftly denied.

"It's a hard thing to do politically for some people," said the chairman of the committee that controlled appropriations at the time.

Each shut-it-down surge was met with promises. After guards were fired for beating a boy in 2007, the agency boss said Dozier would get better.

"There are systemic operational problems at our Dozier facility that span the chain of command," he said. "We have to act decisively to change the culture of our Dozier facility."

Three years and two failed reviews later, the department is still talking about that change.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, says he has been assured by the Juvenile Justice department that Dozier is improving. "They've said that safety of the kids is paramount and that we would be pleased with what they have done there,'' he said.

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, is lobbying the governor and other lawmakers to keep the facility open, sparing jobs in her district.

"If there are issues at Dozier, then let's help them correct them and move forward," she said.

Miller, the children's advocate, said he is sympathetic to people losing their jobs but believes the situation could be offset by turning the Dozier property over to the Department of Corrections for low security prisoners.

"I don't believe that economic impact should be used for subjecting children to inferior care," he said.

Jobs are important, but not the only consideration, said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando and the House criminal justice budget chairwoman.

"But at the end of the day, we have to consider — seriously consider — what's in the best interest of the children," she said.

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

Lawmakers to consider: Is it time to close the Dozier School for Boys? 03/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 9:23am]

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