‘I still carry the scars’: Dozier School survivors share powerful testimony in Senate Committee
Image via Colin Hackley.

"I would go back to Vietnam tomorrow and serve in the jungles rather than go back one single day to the school at Marianna."

Within the walls of a Capitol meeting room, veterans adorned in military regalia stood at a lectern accustomed to policy arguments and lobbyists, and muted the room with their stories of survival — recalling the abuse they suffered at Florida’s former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

“I’m a survivor. I survived Vietnam and I survived Dozier, Dozier being the hardest of the two. I would go back to Vietnam tomorrow and serve in the jungles rather than go back one single day to the school at Mariana,” said Bryant Middleton, a former Army Ranger and survivor of the Dozier School.

A handful of Dozier Reform School survivors delivered powerful testimony Tuesday afternoon to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee as the panel heard a bill that would provide a process for former students to be certified as victims. That would give them a pathway forward for compensation from the state. Together, they’re known as the White House Boys, referring to a place on the school grounds where the abuse often took place.

“I’m 75 years old, and I still carry the scars from the Dozier School. I was only 14 years old, beaten, raped, and told if I mentioned it to anybody, that I will never see my family,” said Cecil Gardner, another Vietnam veteran who served 14 years in the Marines. “I was afraid. All these years I’ve been carrying this pain.”

The legislation (SB 482), filed by Sen. Darryl Rouson, cleared its first committee hurdle unanimously. Now, the Senate bill must pass two more committees before it can be voted on by the full Senate.

The bill, which does not include a compensation amount, comes years after an investigation uncovered rampant physical, sexual and mental abuse at the institution between the 1940s and the late 1970s. The state school, now shuttered, housed young boys, many of whom were convicted of minor offenses, such as smoking and truancy.

“I never talked about it. I became an alcoholic. Thank God I got sober,” said Gene Luker, who was at the institution throughout the late 1950s. “I was beaten — and when we say we’re beaten, it’s really hard to explain. People don’t understand what we’re talking about … It’s so painful, it is unbelievable. When that strap hits you for the first time it goes through every nerve in your body.”

Despite rumors of abuse at the institution, allegations were not fully investigated until the school failed an inspection in 2009. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement later confirmed some abuse and violence allegations in 2010, forcing the school to close a year later.

“I never told anybody about it — who are you going to tell? 1956, ’57? Who was I going to go to? Nobody, I was a ward of the state, they could do what they wanted to,” Luker said.

Families of the victims later sued the state to recover remains from the unmarked graves. In 2017, the Florida Legislature held a ceremony formally apologizing to victims and their families.

“My mother is gone. She didn’t even know that I was abused because I was afraid to tell her. My children are grown and got children and I just told them, just a month ago,” Gardner said. “We sat at the table and cried together. They asked me, ‘Dad, how? How could you go through something like that and not say anything?’ I said ‘I was afraid.'”

The University of South Florida also identified 45 burial sites on the school’s grounds and, in all, documented nearly 100 deaths that occurred at the school. Dozens of students, meanwhile, remain missing.

Rep. Tracie Davis filed a House version of the bill (HB 161), which has three committee assignments.

The 2022 Legislative Session will mark at least the third attempt to compensate the White House Boys.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


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