Families get up to $7,500 to rebury boys who died at Dozier reform school

A team of archaeologists and biologists from the University of South Florida walk through the Boot Hill cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
A team of archaeologists and biologists from the University of South Florida walk through the Boot Hill cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Tampa Bay Times

The “boys” who survived years of physical abuse at a state-run reform school and families of those who didn’t survive won their first major legislative victory on Wednesday.

And they are hoping it won't be their last.

“This is a very important start for all of us, but there is more to get done,” said Jerry Cooper, one of dozens of men from all over the state who have reported suffering violent beatings as children at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the North Florida town of Marianna.

Just before noon Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill requiring the state to give up to $7,500 to the families of children whose remains were discovered by archeologists in often unmarked and makeshift graves on the campus of the reform school. That same legislation also creates a task force charged with establishing a memorial as well as deciding how to handle the remains of bodies that have yet to be identified or claimed by families.

“It buries the dead with dignity and establishes a permanent reminder so that the atrocities the children endured at Dozier are neither forgotten nor repeated,” State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said about the bill she took the lead on in the Legislature.

Cooper, who as a 16-year-old said he survived outrageous beatings at the school, said it’s not just about the burial costs, but shows that after decades of looking the other way, Florida is taking responsibility for what happened.

What he and others say should come next is obvious to them.

An apology.

“I would give anything for that,” said Cooper, who lives in Cape Coral.

Cooper said that when Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi made heartfelt informal apologies at a public meeting in January to him and others who were tortured, he said it caused him to break down.

More complicated is a growing push by sympathetic legislators who say the state should compensate survivors of abuse at the school, which operated from 1900 to 2011. Joyner and state Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said it is time for the state to help those who suffered at the hands of their state government.

“I would hope that the Legislature would see that it is the right thing to do,” Joyner said.

Robert Straley, a Clearwater man who in 1963 was sent to Dozier as a 13-year-old, said the men who survived need help. Many suffered psychological damage that they struggle with today.

“I hope they do something for these men,” Straley said. “Those beatings ruined lives.”

Both Straley and Cooper are part of a group known as the “White House Boys,” referring to a building on the Dozier campus where some of the more horrific beatings occurred.

But getting compensation or an apology won’t be easy. Even the legislation to bury the remains of children who died at the Dozier was a struggle. During each step, Joyner and Narain were quizzed by fellow legislators for assurances they weren’t laying blame on the state of Florida and were not trying to compensate survivors.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he asked some of those questions out of concern for proper procedure. He said “obviously some very bad things happened at Dozier,” but the Legislature needs to let the process play out through proper legal channels. He said there have been no criminal prosecutions or findings of wrongdoing by a court of law.

“Before politicians get ahead of themselves, let’s let USF conclude its work,” said Gaetz, whose district includes Marianna. “Let’s let the facts develop.”

In 2012, University of South Florida anthropologists began investigating burial grounds on the campus, where simple pipe crosses marked what was said to be the final resting place for 31 boys. Using ground penetrating radar and excavation techniques, they found 55 graves, many in the woods outside the marked cemetery. Remains were found buried under trees and brush and under an old road.

USF anthropologists presented a report to the Florida Cabinet in January that showed most of the deaths that occurred were because of illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.

“It’s a very good first step to address something that never should have happened,” said former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, a leading advocate for those who have told tales of horror after being sent to the reform school over decades.

Straley said he doesn’t take for granted how far he and other survivors have come over the last nine years in their quest to shine a light on a troubled and hidden slice of Florida history. Years ago, he said, he never could have imagined public apologies, proper burials for the boys he watched disappear decades ago, or new laws responding to the tragedy.

“The days of sweeping this under the rug are over,” Straley said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.