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Friday, May 12, 2023

The Infamous Dozier School For Boys

     The Arthur G. Dozier School For Boys opened in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna in 1900. The reform school housed boys from the ages 8 to 20. Most of the school's residents were run-a-ways, truants and kids who had committed minor crimes. A few were orphans who had nowhere else to live and children classified by their parents or guardians as "incorrigible."

     The Dozier School was established to take wayward boys off the street and to mold them into decent youngsters who would grow up to be law abiding productive citizens. Instead, the institution became from the beginning a house of horrors where boys would suffer unspeakable abuse and in many cases violent death at the hands of sadistic sex offending staff members. And this would go on under the noses of the authorities for decades.

     In 1903, state inspectors visited the Dozier School and found children restrained in leg irons. No one was held accountable so the abuse continued. Eleven years later a dormitory fire of suspicious origin killed six children and two members of the staff. The dead boys were buried in the school cemetery, a section of the 1,400-acre campus the boys called "Boot Hill". The graves were marked with simple crosses made of steel pipe. In 1918 another dormitory fire killed eleven more boys.

     By 1973 the Dozier School cemetery--Boot Hill- contained 31 graves. According to the school's highly unreliable records, most of these institutional deaths had involved illness and drowning. None of the deaths of these young incarcerated boys sparked a cause and manner of death investigation.

     A century after the creation of the Dozier School more than a hundred men who had lived at the school in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, members of a support group called the White House Boys (named after a white cottage where some of the worst abuse took place) started petitioning the state of Florida to investigate the school, hold some of the sadistic staff members and administrators accountable, and shut the place down. These Dozier School alumni chronicled their experiences at the institution. The abuse included psychological torture, neglect, flogging and sexual assault. The former residents even spoke of murder.

     In 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, pressured by lobbying from the White House Boys and other Dozier alumni support groups, ordered an investigations into these criminal accusations. The case was taken up by the Florida State Department of Law Enforcement (the state police) and came to nothing. According to investigators, they could not uncover enough evidence to justify criminal charges.

     Frustrated by the failure of the state to expose decades of abuse, and to hold the Dozier School abusers accountable, the White House Boys, in 2010, launched their own investigation. The results of this inquiry, documented in a thick report, were so convincing and shocking the state in 2011 closed the school for good.

     In 2013 a team of forensic pathologists using radar equipment that can penetrate the soil, depicted  55 unmarked graves. All of these suspicious sites were located outside the school cemetery. Exhumations and DNA analysis resulted in the identification of 21 Dozier children. The skeletal remains revealed that some of these boys had died from shotgun wounds, others from blunt force trauma and the rest from malnutrition and infection.

     Investigators with the University of South Florida in 2014 found that between 1903 and 1913, children at the Dozier School were denied food and clothing, shackled, whipped, raped and hired out to work for other people. From 1900 to 1973 more than 100 boys died at the school.

     Following Hurricane Michael in 2016, an engineering firm hired by the Florida State Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the mess, discovered 27 "anomalies" in the soil on the grounds of the old Dozier School. These anomalies were consistent with unmarked graves.

     By April 2019 forensic anthropologists with South Florida University confirmed the existence of the 27 graves. The remains at these sites revealed more evidence of child abuse and violent death.

     Cases like this remind us of the unlimited human capacity for cruelty and that institutions housing the young and the old cannot be trusted and must be closely monitored. 

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