With 17 former students of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys watching in the public galleries, the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday formally apologized for abuse suffered by hundreds of boys at the now-closed reform school.
“We stand here in solidarity, saying we’re sorry,” said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the resolution (HR 1335) co-sponsored by 116 members of the House.
The resolution acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to Dozier and a related facility in Okeechobee was cruel, unjust and “a violation of human decency.” More than 500 former students have alleged brutal beatings, mental abuse and sexual abuse at the Dozier school, which was closed in 2011 after 111 years of operation in Marianna.
“That was a genuine thing that was heartfelt by all of the White House boys,” said Charles Fudge, a 69-year-old Homosassa resident who wiped away tears during the House debate and vote. “It means an awful lot for them to acknowledge the abuse that went on.”
Fudge, who was sent to Dozier with three of his brothers in the early 1960s, is part of the “White House Boys” group, which is named after a facility at the school where boys were beaten and abused.
It was testimony and information-gathering by the White House boys that led to a state investigation of Dozier, the exhumation by University of South Florida researchers of 55 graves at the facility and the appointment of a state task force that completed its work last year.
In a related move Tuesday, the House unanimously passed a bill (HB 7115) that would authorize the creation of monuments in Tallahassee and in Jackson County, which includes Marianna, to commemorate the Dozier and Okeechobee victims.
“It’s time,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat who helped sponsor the bill. “It’s time for closure. It’s time for accountability. It’s time for justice.”
Stafford said the memorials would be a “visual reminder” of what happened at the reform school and that the students’ stories will “not be forgotten.”
Rep. Shawn Harrison, a Tampa Republican who also was a sponsor, said the legislation is carrying out the recommendations of the Dozier task force, calling it “a small step toward righting a terrible wrong.”
In addition to the two memorials, the bill would require the reburial of victims of a 1914 dormitory fire at Dozier in the Boot Hill cemetery at the former Jackson County school. It also would require the burial of unidentified Dozier victims in Tallahassee.
The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, would direct the state Department of Environmental Protection to use ground-penetrating radar to explore the 1,400-acre Dozier site for additional unmarked graves.
The Dozier property may eventually be turned over to Jackson County, where officials see the property as a key to the community’s future economic development, or it could be sold as surplus land by the state.
But the House legislation says even if the land is eventually transferred, deed restrictions will protect the Boot Hill cemetery and the White House.
The legislation also would name a Florida Department of Law Enforcement forensic training center in Pasco County after Thomas Varnadoe, who died a little more than month after being sent to Dozier in 1934. His remains were identified and returned to his family during the investigation.
A Senate resolution (SR 1440) apologizing for the abuse and beatings at Dozier and Okeechobee is pending in the Rules Committee.
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