How did hundreds of boys suffer such horrific abuse at the hands of those supposed to care for them?
The Florida School For Boys was supposed to be a place to rehabilitate wayward youths. Instead, it became a sickening site where boys, some as young as 9, were shackled, beaten, starved, raped – even murdered…
When the Florida School for Boys opened in 1900, it was hailed as the ideal institution for young, troubled boys.
There, they could be put back on the straight and narrow.
By the 1960s, the school housed more than 500 boys who’d been in trouble for truancy, petty theft or running away from home.
Set within 1,400 acres of land in Marianna, it looked idyllic. But, behind the heavy wooden doors, gruesome acts of cruelty were carried out from the moment the institution opened.
Although the full extent of the horror that went on at the Florida School for Boys – also known as Arthur G Dozier School for Boys – was only revealed recently, there were clues right from the off.
In 1903, an inspection reported children were routinely kept in heavy, painful leg irons. But, in an age when corporal punishment was common, nothing was done.
Then, in 1934, a 13-year-old boy sent to the school for trespass mysteriously died after just 38 days there.
This raised concerns, but not enough to prompt a serious investigation.
In 1968, corporal punishment at the school was outlawed. However, the ban did nothing to stop the abuse suffered by children at the hands of those entrusted to educate them…
A report soon after found the school was barely fit to be lived in. There were leaky ceilings, no heating in the winter, cramped sleeping quarters, and buckets used as toilets.
Sadly, for children sentenced to attend the school, this was the least of their problems.
As well as the school buildings – which included classrooms and boarding facilities – there was a specially built detention centre with two prison-like cells for students deemed violent.
In fact, the cells were torture chambers, where inmates were subjected to horrific punishment.
Many reported being taken to the cells, nicknamed ‘the White House’, to be whipped with a 3ft-long belt until they passed out.
Boys who cried during the beatings were whipped harder, many ending up with their underwear embedded in their skin.
Bill Price, now 69, was a teenager housed at the school in the 1960s, and is now Vice President of a victim-support group, the White House Boys.
He’s recalled the horror of being lashed as he begged for mercy.
‘I remember screaming and yelling and praying to God for them to stop, but to no avail,’ Bill says. ‘I recall how one would get tired and another would take over.
‘After I was beaten, they had to help me off the bed, wrapped me in a towel to hide the blood, then sent me to the infirmary to be cleaned up and returned to my dorm.’
But the abuse wasn’t just beatings. A separate part of the school became known by the chilling name of the ‘rape dungeon’.
In 1982, an inspection of the school found boys were being tied hand and foot and kept in isolation for weeks at a time.
Lawsuits were filed, the school was put under federal control in 1987. Yet again, little changed and life continued to be a living nightmare for youngsters there.
It wasn’t until 25 years later, in 2007, that the school’s Acting Superintendent and another employee were fired following allegations of abuse.
Then, in 2009, the school failed its annual inspection because it hadn’t adequately dealt with piles of complaints of mistreatment from boys who stayed there.
An investigation in 2010 found 11 per cent of inmates had been sexually abused by force by staff. A further 10 per cent said they’d been subjected to sexual abuse without force.
Astonishingly, these figures alone weren’t enough for the school to be condemned.
In fact, officials claimed that the statistics weren’t out of line with the rate of sexual victimisation at other US institutions.
Finally, in June 2011, the state of Florida decided to close down the Florida School for Boys.
But not because of the abuse – instead they blamed budget cuts.
It was only once the school had closed that the real horror of what’d gone on was revealed.
In 2012, a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida uncovered 55 unmarked graves, estimated 100 people had died on the grounds.
An investigation found the school deliberately under-reported deaths, particularly those from the likes of gunshot wounds and blunt trauma.
It’s believed that many of the unmarked graves contain the bodies of black children – segregated from white kids at the school.
And that three times as many black students as white ones died there.
Despite many investigations, nobody has ever been brought to justice.
It’s now unlikely anyone ever will be, as many of those allegedly responsible have since died.
However, the victims have now finally received an apology from the State for their mistreatment.
The Government approved a resolution acknowledging the physical and sexual abuse.
It’s hoped the recognition of wrongdoing will bring some closure for the many victims.