State closes controversial boys' school in Marianna
By Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, Times Staff Writers
Posted: May 26, 2011 10:26 AM
The state-run school for boys in Marianna, which has eluded closure for more than a century despite being rocked
by chronic scandal, is closing June 30 after 111 years of operation.
The state's Department of Juvenile Justice is informing 185 employees of the school's fate Thursday morning and is
preparing to move its remaining 63 young detainees to other facilities as it ceases operations at what was once the
largest reform school in the country, 60 miles west of the capital.
The notorious program has gone by different names since it was founded in 1900 — Florida Industrial School,
Florida School for Boys, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and, recently, the North Florida Youth Development
Center — but one thing has been consistent: Boys have gone in damaged and come out destroyed.
In 2008, five men claimed they were beaten bloody by guards in the 1950s and '60s in a wretched cinder-block
building called the White House. As word spread their numbers grew into the hundreds. The school was the subject
of a St. Petersburg Times series called "For Their Own Good," about how trauma affected the men detained there
since the 1940s.
"Wow, it's great to see that shop of horrors shut down," said Robert Straley, 64, of Clearwater, one of the original
five known as the "White House boys." "It started out wrong right from the beginning. It was the worst thing the state
of Florida ever did, and to think that they let this go on so long is just unbelievable."
But it's a deep cut in the department's residential services budget that's doing what no amount of public pressure
could do in a century. The Department of Juvenile Justice says the school is closing as part of its reform plan to shift
money from residential oversight to "front-end" services like prevention, electronic monitoring and community-based
services. That means eliminating $41 million from the department's residential budget. The school in Marianna costs
about $14.3 million to run.
Still, the department's new secretary acknowledged what the Marianna program has come to represent.
"I greatly respect the courageous efforts of the community and our own employees to move past the history this
facility represents," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, in an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times,
"but for those men who are known as the White House Boys, it is my sincere hope that they can close that chapter in
their lives and find peace."
Child advocates celebrated the news.
"There will be some who interpret this end of the era of Dozier as strictly a budgetary decision, basically a numbers-
driven decision," said child advocate Jack Levine, who exposed the use of solitary confinement at the school 30
years ago. "I think it's a factor, but I think the over-arching reality is we have in Secretary Walters a deeply dedicated
reformer who knows that the best use of our dollars are investments in quality and accountability."
Retired juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan is pleased to see the reform school closed.
"The money that's spent, imagine what we can do for those boys — recreational, educational, job training in their
communities — so they don't have to be warehoused far away from home and they can be prepared to be
productive citizens," she said. "And I congratulate the secretary. It's long overdue, and it's also to her credit that she
did it so early in her term, right after a very successful legislative session where she advanced her civil citation
The 185 employees were being told about the closure during two consecutive meetings Thursday morning. Walters
could not be at the meetings and is in South Florida, where she is fulfilling a previous commitment, said spokesman
The first scandal at the school came in 1903, just three years after it opened. Investigators found children "in irons,
just as common criminals." This was no reform school, their report said. This was a prison for children.
The investigation would launch a seemingly endless cycle of exposes and fleeting reform. In its first two decades,
investigators discovered that school administrators hired out boys to work with state convicts. They also learned that
students were brutally beaten with a leather strap attached to a wooden handle.
In 1914, six boys and two staff members died while trapped in a burning dormitory. A grand jury learned the
superintendent and staff were in town on a "pleasure bent" when the fire started.
Trouble continued with each passing year, from reports of inadequate medical care to the murder of two students by
peers. By 1956, the overcrowded Marianna facility housed 698 students and 128 staffers. It had become the largest
boys' school in the country, and it was growing.
In March 1958, a Miami psychologist and former staff member at the school told a U.S. Senate committee about
mass beatings with a heavy, 3 1/2-inch-wide leather strap.
"The blows are very severe," Dr. Eugene Byrd testified. "They are dealt with a great deal of force with a full arm
swing over his head and down, with a strap, a leather strap approximately a half-inch thick and about 10 inches long
with a wooden formed handle."
In 1968, corporal punishment was outlawed in state-run institutions. By then, the school had been renamed the
Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, after a longtime superintendent. That year, Gov. Claude Kirk visited Marianna. He
found holes in the leaking ceilings and broken walls, bucket toilets, bunk beds crammed together to accommodate
overcrowding, no heat in the winter. Kirk declared it a training ground for a life of crime.
"If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances," he said, "you'd be up there with rifles."
An official from the U.S. Department of Health called it a "monstrosity." One juvenile court judge who toured the
facility vowed never again to send boys there. Another said it was so understaffed that boys were left alone at night
and sexual perversion was common.
A year later, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor visited the school and found a 16-year-old named Jim in
solitary confinement. Jim had eaten a lightbulb, then used a glass diffuser pried from a lighting fixture to slash his
arm a dozen times from wrist to elbow.
"No one seemed to care," the reporter wrote. The headline read, Bulldoze them to the ground.
In 1983, the class-action "Bobby M" lawsuit was filed on behalf of students at Marianna and two other state reform
"I saw it, I smelled it, I experienced the fear and the wrongs that were being done to those young people, and while I
never met many who were behind those fences, I met enough young people to know that it was the wrong place for
them," said Levine, the children's rights advocate whose visit to the school prompted the suit. "You don't have to see
all the faces to recognize that there were wrongs that were being committed there that needed to be corrected."
The suit made a number of allegations, the most serious concerning isolation cells where boys were held for three
weeks, sometimes longer. They were hogtied — forced to lie on their stomachs with their wrists and ankles shackled
together behind their backs.
The suit was in the courts through three governors. On the eve of the 1987 trial, the state settled, agreeing to
sharply reduce the population at Dozier and another juvenile institution. "These reforms launch Florida into a new
and progressive era in the way we treat young offenders,'' Health and Rehabilitative Services Secretary Gregory
Coler said at the time.
It didn't last.
In 1993, teenagers attacked two British tourists at a rest stop near Monticello, killing one. Already upset with
increasingly violent youth, Floridians were in no mood to coddle young criminals. By 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles
asked a federal court to throw out the population caps at Dozier.
In recent years, the school has failed two annual evaluations.
In March, a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court claimed kids are still being abused and mistreated. The suit,
filed by Florida Institutional Legal Services on behalf of three clients incarcerated at the school, alleges kids with
mental illness and developmental disabilities are placed in isolation for days or weeks as punishment and are denied
appropriate mental health treatment.
To read "For Their Own Good," visit tampabay.com/ specials/2009/reports/ marianna.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650. Waveney Ann Moore can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.
[Last modified: May 26, 2011 12:48 PM]