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As Senate Heads Toward That Path, Florida House Apologizes To Dozier School Victims

As part of a formal apology from the Florida House Tuesday, the former wards of the Dozier School for Boys stand as their names are called.
As part of a formal apology from the Florida House Tuesday, the former wards of the Dozier School for Boys stand as their names are called.

While the Florida Senate is on its way to that path, the House has officially apologized to the survivors of the infamous Dozier School for Boys. It’s for the abuse they suffered at the hands of staffers at the state-run juvenile reform school in North Florida decades ago.

For close to a minute, the Florida House gave a standing ovation Tuesday to the abuse victims of the Dozier School for Boys. That’s after the chamber not only passed a bill memorializing the victims who didn’t survive the abuse, but also extended a formal apology to the survivors and their families.

That resolution adopted by the House not only acknowledges physical and sexual abuse occurred at the school as well as its sister campus in Okeechobee, but also commits to making sure this never happens again.

“Claude Robins, Pastor John Gaddy, Bryant Middleton, Robert Straley, James DeNyke, Robert Baxter, Paul Elgin, Charles Fudge, George Fudge, John Bell, Skip St. Clair, Richard Huntly, Bill Price, Gary Rice, Peggy Marx on behalf of her husband Frank Marx, Henry Culver, and Don Stratton,” read Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville), the bill's sponsor.

Davis is reading the names of a number of Dozier survivors, who stood as their name was called and watched the proceedings from the House gallery.

And, at the end of the reading, Davis along with her fellow House colleagues stood themselves and formally apologized.

“On behalf of the Florida House of Representatives, again, we stand here in solidarity, saying we’re sorry and we apologize for the wrongs that happened to you at the Dozier School as well as the Okeechobee school,” said Davis.

Richard Huntley—one of the survivors acknowledged at the Florida House—went to the Dozier School when he was 11-years-old.

“See, I’m one of the young black boys behind the curtain in Marianna,” he said. “I was from the segregated side. See, there was a time I couldn’t speak to most of ya’ll here. I would get beat to say hello to a white boy. Today, I can speak to anybody.”

Huntley says he not only survived severe beatings, he also endured other types of suffering.

“During the time I was there, I got the right top of my toe cut off trying to cut cane in the winter time,” he added. “17 degrees weather! 11-years-old! What did that mean to them? Nothing.”

And, he says all the while, he never understood why he was sent to the school—and still didn’t for decades.

“I didn’t know for over 50 years what [the state] sent me for,” Huntley continued. “Because I was poor, we didn’t have shoes to go to school. We didn’t have lunch. So, we decided we wasn’t going. That landed me in Marianna, [formerly] the Florida School for Boys, with the title of ‘incorrigible.’”

And, Rep. Davis says other juveniles were sent to the North Florida reform school for similar reasons.

“Such offenses as incorrigibility, truancy, smoking, as well as some other more serious crimes,” she said. “For 111 years, the state of Florida ran this reform school that was plagued with reports of brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and suspicious deaths.”

But, it was through the investigative work of University of South Florida researchers led by Erin Kimmerle in the past few years that allowed them to unearth the remains of 55 people buried on the Dozier property in unmarked graves.

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison—who co-sponsored the memorial bill—says his bill not only memorializes those unclaimed remains in Marianna and Tallahassee, the bill now preserves the “White House,” where survivors say a lot of the abuse occurred. It also allows for the researchers to unearth more remains.

“The amended bill directs the Board of Trustees from selling or leasing the Boot Hill Cemetery and the structure known as the ‘White House,’ and the land underneath both without protecting those structures and land in perpetuity,” said Harrison. “The bill also directs the Department of Environmental Protection to submit a plan for surveying the grounds of Dozier with ground penetrating radar or other means to determine if any other remains are buried on the property.”

Meanwhile, there is no companion bill in the Senate for any memorials. But, there is a companion measure in the Senate making a formal apology. It has more committee stop before heading to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner .

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