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Abuse allegations draw attention to reform school graveyard

TALLAHASSEE — A dirt road near a state-run reform school where children were abused in the 1950s and '60s ends at a makeshift cemetery — more than 30 white metal crosses neatly lined in four rows.

But state officials don't know who — or what — lies beneath. There are no names, dates or other details on the simple markers.

Several men who suffered through severe beatings at what's now called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys believe the crosses mark the graves of boys who were killed at the school, victims of punishments that went too far. Now they want an investigation, and have called on state and federal authorities to unearth the remains and identify them. On Monday, Gov. Charlie Crist agreed it's worth taking a look at.

"It's pretty disturbing stuff, if true," Crist said. "I think that an investigation would be appropriate."

Who will investigate is another question. The men, who call themselves "the White House Boys" because they were beaten in a small, white building on the detention center grounds, are reaching out to the Justice Department, the state Attorney General's Office and the state Juvenile Justice Department. Another possibility is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

None of the agencies has yet to start looking at a mystery that could be as old as the detention center, which opened in 1900.

"We're talking 108 years ago, and it's hard to know all the history and how things were handled," said Mary Zahasky, the reform school's superintendent. "I just can't imagine having my child buried out there like that. … It makes me sad. I feel bad if there are little children over there in those little graves."

The cemetery is near the area where the school housed black inmates. On the property now is an adult prison separate from the reform school. Zahasky said its possible that six children who died in a 1914 school fire may be buried there, but that wouldn't explain the other graves.

She said she finds it difficult to believe children would have been beaten to death.

But the school apparently operated under a veil of secrecy in the past. No one has ever been prosecuted for the beatings, and just two months ago, the Juvenile Justice Department acknowledged during a ceremony that the abuse took place. At the event, five men who spent time at the juvenile detention center in Marianna, about 70 miles northwest of Tallahassee, gave horrifying details of beatings they received for offenses as slight as singing, or talking to a black inmate.

After the ceremony, department officials took the men to the cemetery. On Monday, four former inmates, now in their 60s, held a news conference calling for the investigation.

Roger Kiser, 63, who now lives in Brunswick, Ga., said he remembers guards once had a boy put in a laundry dryer. A short time later the boy's body, covered in a sheet, was thrown into the back of a car, Kiser claims. He said a psychologist at the detention center warned him not to say anything about what he saw.

"He made it very clear — 'If you open your mouth, if you do anything, they won't find you,'  " Kiser said.

He claims he also saw a boy taken from a dining hall to "the White House" for a beating and never returned.

The Juvenile Justice Department will cooperate with any investigation, said spokesman Frank Penela.

"We haven't been able to find any information on those graves, we don't know what those graves hold," he said. "I'd like to know what those graves are myself."

Michael O'McCarthy, 66, who was sent to the detention center when he was 15 for stealing auto parts, was grateful that the governor expressed an interest in a possible probe.

"I would just ask the state to do the right thing," said O'McCarthy, who now lives in Costa Rica.

Abuse allegations draw attention to reform school graveyard 12/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:41am]
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