The state of Florida began to atone for a horrific chapter in its history this week, more than a century after it began. A pair of resolutions moving through the Legislature formally apologize for the state-run Dozier School for Boys, a torture colony for physical, sexual and emotional abuse that operated from 1900 to 2011, when it was closed after its conditions became public.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a resolution Tuesday deploring the abuse at Dozier, calling the punishment meted out to children as young as 6 years old "cruel, unjust, and a violation of human decency." The public saga started in 2008, when five old men spoke of how they were beaten and molested in the 1950s and '60s at the reform school in Marianna. More than 500 men made similar claims.
After a Tampa Bay Times investigation, forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida spent three years unearthing remains found in a hidden cemetery and in nearby woods. The exhumation yielded 55 burial sites, 24 more sites than reported in official records. About half of the remains have been matched with names, with a handful returned to families. The rest are being stored until an exact burial spot is chosen.
The Senate resolution calls the Dozier school "a shameful part" of Florida history, and in plain language apologizes to the boys and their families for the pain they suffered there and for the trauma they have carried with them their whole adult lives. A similar resolution comes up today in a House committee.
It's important for Florida to accept responsibility for the acts carried out in its name and for the survivors to be comforted in the knowledge that the state is to blame for this shameful episode. Most of the deaths were caused by illness, but some involved shootings and beatings. While members of the Florida Cabinet issued informal apologies last year, lawmakers insisted that the Legislature also go on record. Many people deserve credit for bringing this day of reckoning, including Dr. Erin Kimmerle of USF; Attorney General Pam Bondi; House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes; Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. Former governor and Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez also played a role. This relentless, bipartisan effort to restore the dignity and names of these men reflects the best of public service.
The apologies will help the healing process and serve as the state's commitment to never allow such a facility again. The Legislature is also considering reparations for survivors. This is a reasonable idea, given that the abuse was state-sanctioned. The state agreed to pay reparations in 1994 for victims of the racially inspired massacre in 1923 in the lumber village at Rosewood, where at least six blacks and two whites died after a white mob burned down the town. The Legislature should explore a framework for reparations in this case that balances the pain Dozier victims suffered with a careful use of public funds. Those involved in shining light on this case should continue to work in good faith to bring a shameful era to a respectful conclusion.