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Florida to Pay Millions to Victims of Abuses at Notorious Reform School

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The horrors inflicted on hundreds of boys at a notorious reform school in the Florida Panhandle remain excruciating for survivors to recount, all these years later. Forced labor. Brutal floggings. Sexual abuse.

For more than 15 years, survivors of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, who are now old men, have traveled to the State Capitol in Tallahassee to share their deeply painful memories and implore politicians for justice — for themselves and for the dozens of boys who died at the school.

In 2017, survivors, many of them Black, received an official apology. On Friday, Florida went further: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation creating a $20 million program to give financial restitution to the victims who endured abuse and neglect at the hands of the state. Mr. DeSantis signed the bill in private, his office announced late on Friday.

The compensation program will allow applications from survivors who were “confined” to the Dozier school between 1940 and 1975 and who suffered from “mental, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by school personnel.” Survivors may also apply if they were sent to the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, known as the Okeechobee school, which was opened in 1955 to address overcrowding at Dozier.

Applications will be due by Dec. 31. Each approved applicant will receive an equal share of the funds and waive the right to seek any further state compensation related to their time at the schools.

Florida lawmakers approved the program unanimously this year. Several survivors testified at an emotional State Senate committee hearing in February that appeared to leave some lawmakers at a loss for words.

“Daily, that pain is still with me,” Richard Huntly, who leads the Black Boys at Dozier Reform School, a survivors’ group, said after describing being beaten so fiercely at 11 years old that he felt as though his mind had left his body. “I’m 77 years old now. That lives with me daily. I can’t help it.”

The Dozier school opened in rural Marianna in 1900, as the Florida State Reform School. It housed children as young as 5 committed for criminal and other offenses, including truancy and “incorrigibility.” Though it initially also housed girls, they were sent to a separate reform school for girls beginning in 1913. In Jim Crow Florida, Dozier was segregated into two campuses, one for white boys and one for Black boys, until 1968.

Reports of abuse began soon after Dozier opened and, over the decades, were investigated by the state and subject to congressional hearings. Still, the abuse continued.

The state did not close Dozier until 2011. By then, former students had started to speak publicly about being forced to work the fields and suffering from violent and repeated whippings.

Beginning in 2012, a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida excavated in a portion of Dozier’s 1,400-acre campus, searching for the remains of boys whose deaths had often been listed as “unknown” or “accident.” (A fire in 1914 is thought to have killed eight boys who had been locked in a room; others died in flu epidemics, and some runaways were shot.) The excavations focused on Boot Hill, which during the segregation area was a documented cemetery on the Black side of campus.

The team found 55 unmarked graves, though more than 100 people are thought to have died there.

The ghastly revelations of how children were tortured at Dozier formed the basis for the author Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. In 2022, Erin Kimmerle, the anthropologist who led the Dozier excavations, published an account of the grim work titled “We Carry Their Bones”; last year, the author Tananarive Due dedicated her novel “The Reformatory” to a great-uncle who died at Dozier in 1937, when he was 15 years old.

Read More: Florida to Pay Millions to Victims of Abuses at Notorious Reform School

2024-06-21 23:50:06

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