A Times Editorial

WAITING FOR JUSTICE

Boys were dragged in twos and threes for punishment to the White House at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Boys were dragged in twos and threes for punishment to the White House at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

Nobody ever knows what is going on. No one is ever responsible. There is blood on the walls. There are children who cannot sit down in class because they have been whipped so brutally. But the people in charge ignore it — or worse. When finally called to account, they claim any corporal punishment meted out was authorized. One has to wonder how they live with themselves.

For more than 100 years there have been allegations of savage abuses at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. And over about the same time investigations have been launched, outrages found from severe overcrowding to children being hogtied, and reforms instituted — only to have the same problems reappear after the public attention waned. In a nod to the ironic, the reformatory was renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys after a longtime superintendent, a man who is also alleged to have participated in abuses.

In their exhaustive report today, St. Petersburg Times writers Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore have laid bare the breadth of the scandal, chronicling the systemic way the children at the school were beaten and raped by their caretakers and by fellow students. But in all the years of its controversial existence there has yet to be a full accounting of what happened there and who is responsible. There has yet to be an attempt to compensate the victims. Dozier's name has yet to be removed from the school. Why is that?

Editorials that ran in the St. Petersburg Times and its former sister publication the Evening Independent over the decades call conditions at the school "deplorable," demand firings and investigations. It's a broken record of alarm for what was so obviously a throwaway population of boys who didn't have the family wealth or political connections to matter.

Children as young as 5 were sent by judges to Dozier, sometimes for offenses as petty as skipping school or running away. They emerged scarred physically and psychologically, many for life.

The trauma is apparent 50 years later. Men who call themselves the White House Boys can remember in vivid detail how they were strap-whipped bloody in the putrid building nicknamed the White House, or sexually abused by guards in an underground "rape room." More than 200 of them have now filed suit against the state.

The victims pushed for renewed interest in the school and the 31 white crosses in a small cemetery near the school. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, at the behest of Gov. Charlie Crist, has launched an investigation into the graves and whether they contain the interred remains of students who died, possibly from abuse. But the investigation needs to go further. It needs to be sweeping and comprehensive. It should point fingers and name names and give the White House Boys an official finding that acknowledges what was done to them. Then some system needs to be designed to compensate those who suffered.

As to the institution today, it houses only 130 children, down from highs of 800, and although all official forms of corporal punishment were eliminated long ago, abuses persist. A video from 2007 shows a guard slamming a child to the ground and dragging him as his head bleeds. Since 2004 there have been 316 abuse allegations and 17 have been verified.

Jack Levine, a children's rights advocate who discovered the use of solitary confinement at Dozier 30 years ago, says we should still be concerned about the place and the way in general that young people are treated while incarcerated. Levine says that Florida refuses to properly fund access to legal representation, leaving juvenile offenders often without the ability to challenge their conditions.

In 1969, the Evening Independent called for a state grand jury to investigate Dozier. "It is time that we quit being shocked every time an outsider visits Marianna. It is time we found out why such conditions continue to exist and who is responsible for them."

We are still waiting.

WAITING FOR JUSTICE 04/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 11:35pm]

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