It opened on Jan. 1, 1900, and would soon become the largest juvenile reform institution in the United States. On first glance, looking at some of the photos of the Florida State Reform School, one might be swayed by it’s magnificent presence. Sprawling over 1400 acres, the school boasted a farm, zoo complete with Florida bobcats and alligators, a dry cleaning facility, classrooms, large playgrounds and a swimming pool with diving board.
The recreational room features ping-pong tables while boy-scout-charming decorations covered the walls. The boys slept in cottages, and had what was known as a “cottage father.” When the reform school started, segregation was the law of the southern land and the Florida State Reform School was segregated. The “coloreds” were housed on the North Side, also known as “Campus # 2” and the whites were housed on the South Side, or “Campus #1. The segregation didn’t imply there would be a barrier between stories of abuse; however.
As early as 1903, just three years after the school began, an investigation report found that children were kept in leg irons. According to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement abuse report released on Jan. 29, 2010, children as young as six-years-old lived at the reform school during its early years, including female students.
The report states, “In the early years, the facility was situated on almost 1,400 acres and periodically housed both male and female students, some as young as six years old. Many of these students were committed to the facility for minor offenses, such as incorrigibility or truancy.
“White” and “colored” students were segregated from one another until 1968. The School had two campuses, the South Side or “Number 1” side for the “white” students and the North Side or “Number 2” side for “colored” students. The School’s North Side campus, where the cemetery was located, was permanently closed between 1990 and 1991.”
In another report published by USF we see another look at the school in the early years. In the Interim Report on Boot Hill Cemetery we read, “The first Biennial report (Feb. 14, 1901), from Superintendent Walter Rawls to the Board of Directors stated that there had been thirty child inmates with an average of twenty children at a time (5 white boys and 25 negro boys and girls) with sentences ranging from 6 months to 4 years, according to the law.”
From the early days of the school’s origins until its close in 2011, the Florida Reform School for Boys was steeped in scandal, controversy and horrific stories of abuse. It went through a number of name changes including the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys, and the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Regardless of the name changes, the stories of abuse and scandal continued.
The school’s cemetery is currently the subject of intense scrutiny. For over a century, reports surfaced of horrific accounts of abuse, rape and murder that took place at the school. Regardless of changes in oversight, government involvement in the school, and expert, witness testimony, the school continued to utilize the same methods of discipline, that often included beating children until they were bloodied and needed to have their underwear surgically removed from their skin. Over the years, students would come forward to tell stories of seeing children taken into a white concrete building referred to as the “White House” where they would be beaten with a leather belt that had metal sewn into it, only to never see the children alive again. Survivors of beatings in the “White Room”, particularly throughout the 50s and 60s have gone forward with their stories seeking government action regarding the abuse. Many of these survivors are now referred to as the “White House Boys.”
White House Boys have repeatedly stated they are aware of more boys being killed and buried on property grounds than the state of Florida previously accounted for.
Click here for videos regarding the Dozier School for Boys and the “White House.”
Current exhumations are underway to determine how many bodies are buried in unmarked graves on the property, and forensic teams will begin the tedious process of identifying remains and determining how the children and teens died.