A Dark Past Unburied

In their darkest nightmares, the men all dream about the same place: a blood-smeared cot in a dank concrete building at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida’s Panhandle. “On my first day, they thought I was planning to run away,” says Robert Straley, who was 13 when he was sent to the state’s first reform school after he ran away from home in 1960. “The guard laid me on the bed and gave me 25 lashes with a leather strap. When I looked back at him, he gave me 10 more. Blood was everywhere.” Jerry Cooper’s 1961 memories are similar. “I was beaten for no reason,” he says. “I’ve had anger issues ever since.” The anger is directed not only at the men who beat them but also at those who turned a deaf ear on their cries for help. “It goes beyond beatings; children were murdered there,” says former student Roger Kiser, 67. “We tried to tell people about it for years, but no one listened.”

Decades later, officials have been forced to do far more than listen. In 2008 dozens of those boys, now men in their 60s and 70s, began organizing online and recounting their stories to reporters. Calling themselves the “White House Boys,” after the building where they received the most brutal punishments, the group described harrowing beatings, sexual abuse – and deaths. “Some of the ‘Boys’ who didn’t know each other were telling me the same stories,” says Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “Some of the children who died were as young as 6. We needed to investigate.” Earlier this year the Florida legislature approved the exhumation of dozens of bodies known to be buried beneath the 1,400-acre campus, and on Aug. 31 a team of forensic anthropologists began the grisly task. Their focus: a field of unmarked graves. “We found more than 50 grave shafts using ground-penetrating radar,” says Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida anthropologist leading the team. “So far, we’ve excavated the remains of two children who I estimate are 10 and 13. There’s no telling how many more bodies we’ll find.” Stopping the excavations after a rainy weekend, they resumed their work on Oct. 15, recovering an untold number of remains. Bondi, who vows the bodies will be autopsied to find clues to their deaths, says, “Their families need closure.”

For the former students of Dozier – who were sent to the school after offenses ranging from truancy to theft – things were supposed to get better after a surprise 1968 visit by then-governor Claude Kirk. After touring the facility, he told reporters, “If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d be up here with rifles.” He outlawed corporal punishment, and things slowly got better, but even he couldn’t change Dozier overnight. “I was 13 when I was sent there for skipping school,” says a Dozier resident from 1969, a year after the governor’s visit. “Guards couldn’t hit us, but they could tie us up, shackle us, deprive us of food. They put us in solitary confinement for days. We weren’t hardened criminals. My voice hadn’t even changed yet.” When Dozier closed its doors in 2011 due to budgetary issues, “I started to cry,” he says. “It felt like justice at last.”

True justice may not come in the form of a trial. Because most of the alleged perpetrators are dead, prosecutors currently don’t plan to charge anyone in what Bondi calls a “systematic case of child abuse on a heinous level.” But for the White House Boys, the investigation’s findings may be enough. “I feel vindicated now that the truth is coming out,” says Straley. “People are realizing that it really did happen, and that’s the key to make sure it never happens again.”

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