The Dozier School for Boys is currently in the news as anthropologists from Florida’s USF are unearthing unmarked graves of children who lived and died there. The school has undergone a series of name changes since it opened as the Florida State Reform School on Jan. 1, 1900. In 1914, the school became known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys. The state-run juvenile facility would become the Florida School for Boys in 1957, and another name change would occur ten-years-later when it would become the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The school remained open until June 30, 2011, and retained the name of Dozier until it closed.
It wasn’t long before allegations of abuse surfaced at the school. The first group of students who attended the school included both girls and boys as young as six-years-old. By 1903, the school would be involved in controversy regarding the treatment of students. The incident was documented in the Interim Report on Boot Hill Cemetery by USF anthropologists who are exhuming bones from the school’s property. Additionally, the Interim Report describes the early years of the school’s operation and shows that children were exploited for child labor. Their labor profited the Florida State Reform School, as the facility operated a farm that was used to meet the needs of the school as well as sell surplus to the neighboring community. It didn’t take long to see that the Florida State Reform School was turning a profit and in order to do so at maximum capacity, they would need to keep more boys in the school and for longer sentences.
When the Florida State Reform School opened in 1900, a child’s sentence ranged from 6 months to 4 years. To the school’s administrators, this was a very short “sentence” and before long, administrators were asking Florida lawmakers to change legislation in order that school administrators determine the length of a child’s stay at the school.
In all practicality, this may have been the very first example of “abuse” to occur at the troubled facility. These requests were explained in the Interim Report as follows, “Subsequently, the Board of Directors, under leadership of Honorable W.H. Milton issued a report requesting that the law be amended to allow for longer sentences and that the length of the sentences be turned over to the discretion of the managers of the school, rather than the courts.”
This decision alone put children in terrible jeopardy, as the school had full power and control over determining when children would be deemed fit to leave. Three years later, administrators for the school would again request that students be sent to the school indefinitely.
From the report, “Another request for a legislative change came again on April 7, 1903, when Milton asked Governor Jenkins to authorize that “...incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management (House Journal 1903), in both instances these requests were honored and as a result, the school’s number of enrollment began to increase drastically. The term of sentencing also changed from 6-months to 4-years to “21-years-old or as determined by the court.”
There is no doubt that the school benefited by extending the length of children’s stays. Using the children for slave labor was profitable, but in addition to the cruelty children experienced while working for the reform school, an investigation into the school’s practices as early as 1903 showed that children were treated inhumanely in other areas as well.
The report stated, “Between the years 1903 and 1913, six legislative investigative committees were formed to investigate the school and found that children as young as five years were in irons and chains, children were hired out for labor, unjustly beaten, and without education or proper food and clothing (Lundrigan 1975). Furthermore, throughout this time, financial and administrative records were not well maintained at the school, persistent problems from inadequate medical care, a lack of educational instruction, and unsafe living conditions were written about in the repeated State investigative reports.”
The document listed several incidents that occurred at the Florida Reform School for Boys between the years 1903 and 1913. In a letter from the legislative investigation committee dated June 1, 1903, addressed to the President of the Senate, Honorable Frank Adams, it stated, “We found them [children] in irons, just as common criminals, which in the judgment of your committee, is not the meaning of a “State Reform School.” We have no hesitancy in saying under its present management, it is nothing more than a prison where juveniles are confined.
By 1909, the review committee accused the school’s board manager as detaining children past their dates for the sole purpose of labor, and for falsifying inventory. The document stated, “The school rooms were in very poor condition and without desks; the inventory listed in the Biennial Report was greatly falsified. The President of the Board of Managers had accrued large debts and was detaining boys past the age 18 years (up to 20 years), presumably for labor. (Lundrigan 1975).
It is hard to fathom that a school which opened in 1900 and was known for its abuse within its first 10 years of operation not only continued to maintain the same practices, but did so regardless of any attempts to correct them. What might be most disturbing is the similarities found in physical abuse and discipline from a 1911 report and stories shared by survivors of the “White House” abuse that occurred throughout the 50s and 60s.
From the 1911 report by the Special Joint Committee on the State Reformatory: [Superintendent Morgan] “at times unnecessarily and brutally punished, the instrument of punishment being a leather strap fastened to a wooded [sic] paddle.”
As the school was segregated (the north side housed the African Americans and the south side housed the whites), the report found that conditions on the African American campus were similar to a convict camp.
The report continued, “The Negro School impressed your committee as being more in the nature of a convict camp, than anything else we can think of.” Other complaints included finding that the children were overcrowded, did not have adequate food, there was poor ventilation and the sick were not properly cared for. Some of the African American children slept four to a bed, leaving little room for breathing and proper ventilation.
While the original leather strap children who attended the school throughout the 50s and 60s said was used to implement torturous beatings has yet to be recovered, there is a newspaper photo showing “child reformer O.J. Keller circa. late 60s, holding a paddle and a leather strap. The horrible truth is that authorities knew children were physically abused and tortured at the Dozier School for Boys (then Florida State Reform School) as early as 1911 (if not before), and during the 60s, the same implements of torture and abuse were paraded in front of newspaper cameras.
As the investigation into the horrific accounts of abuse, rape and murder begin to unfold, one must ask how many other “reform schools” in Florida were guilty of the same practices, and how many are still violating children’s rights today.
Click here for newspaper articles regarding abuse at Dozier School for Boys.
Marianna’s Two Faces: Boy’s Volunteer for Beatings to Work Way out of Marianna School (part 3) March 6, 1958 (click to page 8 if you aren't automatically taken there)
Click here for videos regarding the Dozier School for Boys and the “White House.”