For their own good: a St. Petersburg Times special report on child abuse
at the Florida School for Boys

By Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, Times Staff Writers
In Print: Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sammie West lives outside town. He's 71 now.

West started at the school in 1960 and stayed for 40 years in a number of
jobs including cottage father. He says he personally spanked two boys, and
he administered fewer than 10 swats each. He even remembers their names.
But that was state-approved protocol at the time, and it was always
witnessed by a supervisor. The staff stopped paddling boys in 1968, he

"I do not know what went on behind closed doors," he says. "I would not say
that there has never been a boy abused. It's going to happen. But I never
saw it or heard about it. . . . I think they was spanked, and that's it."

He recalls three deaths at the school in his 40 years: A boy was found at
the bottom of the swimming pool, a boy died from a heart condition in the
gymnasium, and a boy drowned during a canoe trip on the Chipola River.

He says when the boys would run, he and other men were responsible for
tracking them down, a task that often took hours. And a lot of boys ran
before the campus was fenced in.

"Sometimes you'd go a month without boy hunting," he says. "And sometimes
you'd go boy hunting every night."

Former Gov. Claude Kirk, now 83, remembers boys locked in their dorms at
night with a chain. But he says he never heard about physical or sexual
abuse. "None of that surfaced at the time," he says. "If it had, I would
have done something about it. Put somebody in jail."

The men who were beaten say there's no way the abuse could have been kept
secret. They say they sent photos of their behinds out with friends who
were being released. Some told their families on visits, but things didn't
change. Many needed medical treatment after their beatings. Some recall a
Dr. Wexler smearing ointment on their lacerations.

Wexler is dead, but his daughter remembers helping her father, who had poor
eyesight, when their family lived on campus. Sheila Wexler says he
occasionally treated boys who had cuts or welts on their behinds. "But if
they needed a stitch," she says, "it would only be a few."