The state-run school for boys in Marianna, which has eluded closure for more than a century despite chronic scandal, is closing June 30 after 111 years of operation.
The state's Department of Juvenile Justice informed 185 employees of the school's fate Thursday morning and is preparing to move its remaining 63 young detainees to other facilities as it ceases operations at what was once the largest reform school in the country, 60 miles west of the capital.
The notorious program has gone by different names since it was founded in 1900, but one thing has been consistent: Boys have gone in damaged and come out destroyed.
In 2008, five men claimed they were beaten bloody by guards in the 1950s and '60s in a wretched cinder-block building called the White House. When word spread their numbers grew into the hundreds as more men stepped forward to tell of being raped, beaten and left in solitary confinement for weeks on end. The school was the subject of a St. Petersburg Times series called "For Their Own Good," about how trauma affected the men detained there since the 1940s. An investigation into the beatings by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement resulted in no charges.
"Wow, it's great to see that shop of horrors shut down," said Robert Straley, 64, of Clearwater, one of the original five known as the "White House boys." "It was the worst thing the state of Florida ever did, and to think that they let this go on so long is just unbelievable."
"It helps me a lot to know that no more children are going to be treated like we were," said Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral, who received 135 lashes on a single trip to the White House in 1960, when he was 16.
But it's a deep cut in the department's residential services budget that's doing what no amount of public pressure could do in a century. The Department of Juvenile Justice says the school is closing as part of its reform plan to shift money from residential oversight to "front-end" services like prevention, electronic monitoring and community-based services.
That means eliminating $41 million from the department's residential budget. The school in Marianna costs about $14.3 million to run.
Still, the department's new secretary acknowledged what the Marianna program has come to represent.
"I greatly respect the courageous efforts of the community and our own employees to move past the history this facility represents," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, "but for those men who are known as the White House Boys, it is my sincere hope that they can close that chapter in their lives and find peace."
Besides the Marianna school, DJJ also is shutting the DeSoto Dual Diagnosed Correctional Facility and DeSoto Juvenile Correctional Facility in DeSoto County, Hillsborough Juvenile Detention Center (East) in Tampa, Osceola Juvenile Detention Center in Kissimmee and Seminole Juvenile Detention Center in Sanford.
"Thank God that the state's budget crisis led to one good outcome,'' said Roy Miller, president of Children's Campaign Inc., an advocacy and watchdog group in Tallahassee.
Child advocates cheered the news.
"There will be some who interpret this end of the era of Dozier as strictly a budgetary decision," said child advocate Jack Levine, who exposed the use of solitary confinement at the school 30 years ago. "I think it's a factor, but I think the over-arching reality is we have in Secretary Walters a deeply dedicated reformer who knows that the best use of our dollars are investments in quality and accountability."
"I think its great," said David Utter, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Florida Youth Initiative. "It's almost like it's closing a very dark and troubled chapter in Florida's juvenile justice history."
Said retired juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan: "I congratulate the secretary. It's long overdue, and it's also to her credit that she did it so early in her term."
Spokesman C.J. Drake said DJJ is collaborating with other state agencies to determine potential uses for the facility.
When legislators entertained closing the school in 2009, state NAACP leaders organized a town hall meeting in Marianna. They said they opposed child abuse, but wanted to save jobs.
"Dozier had been a cornerstone of Marianna,'' Richard A. Patterson, president of the NAACP Jackson County branch, said Thursday. "I guess we have lost that battle."
State Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who tried to save the school, said she was disappointed.
"The employees have worked to overcome negative publicity from things that happened years ago over which they had no control," she said. "But the closing of the facility now is a reflection of the economy and the budget reduction that DJJ has been handed."
The first scandal at the school came in 1903, just three years after it opened. Investigators found children "in irons, just as common criminals." This was no reform school, their report said. This was a prison for children.
The investigation would launch a seemingly endless cycle of exposes and fleeting reform. In its first two decades, investigators discovered that school administrators hired out boys to work with state convicts.
In March 1958, a Miami psychologist and former staff member at the school told a U.S. Senate committee about mass beatings with a heavy, 3 1/2-inch-wide leather strap.
In 1968, corporal punishment was outlawed in state-run institutions. By then, the school had been renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, after a longtime superintendent. That year, Gov. Claude Kirk visited Marianna. He found holes in the leaking ceilings and broken walls, bucket toilets, bunk beds crammed together to accommodate overcrowding, no heat in the winter. Kirk declared it a training ground for a life of crime.
"If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances," he said, "you'd be up there with rifles."
In 1983, the class-action "Bobby M" lawsuit was filed on behalf of students at Marianna and two other state reform schools. The suit made a number of allegations, the most serious concerning isolation cells where boys were held for three weeks, sometimes longer. They were hogtied — forced to lie on their stomachs with their wrists and ankles shackled together behind their backs.
In recent years, the school has failed two annual evaluations.
In March, a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court claimed kids are still being abused and mistreated. The suit, filed by Florida Institutional Legal Services on behalf of three clients at the school, alleges kids with mental illness and developmental disabilities are placed in isolation for days or weeks and are denied appropriate mental health treatment.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.