Lawmakers to consider: Is it time to close the Dozier School for Boys?
By Ben Montgomery, Waveney Ann Moore and John Frank, Times Staff Writers
Posted: Mar 08, 2010 07:31 PM

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's oldest reform school has survived a century of failure and
scandal. Now lawmakers once again are confronted with an uncomfortable question: Is it
time to shut the place down?

At the start of another legislative session, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna is
again struggling to keep kids safe. The school notorious for decades-old abuse has failed its
state evaluation two years in a row. In the past five years, the Times has learned, boys have
been beaten by guards, denied medical care and prevented from reporting abuse. The
school has employed a mentally challenged man, a man who came to work high on cocaine
and a man who broke his wife's shoulder. The Department of Juvenile Justice last year
forced out its sixth superintendent in eight years.

Now comes a new batch of calls to close the school. Lawmakers this week will consider the
future of Dozier, which houses 103 boys at a cost of $10 million, or about $100,000 per boy.
But the legislature has failed for 100 years to offer more than temporary relief for Dozier's

"Dozier exists because of history," Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, an
advocacy and watchdog group, said of the politically protected facility. "It doesn't exist
because there is any compelling reason to keep it open.''

Budget woes may provide incentive to shut the school down.

In January, Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate committee that recommends
funding for corrections institutions, asked DJJ to come up with a plan to absorb the closure.
"We have to make some very serious decisions, and this looks like a no-brainer," he said.

Closing the school would mean lost jobs in Jackson County. The school is one of the top 18
employers there, with 192 full-time staff and salaries amounting to $7 million, the report said.

"Most of these employees would become unemployed in a very difficult job market,'' it said.

Crist acknowledged last week that Dozier's troubled past figures into the equation.

"It causes us to pause and look more closely at how are they operating," he said. "Have they
overcome the problems that have plagued it in the past? And is it functioning at the high
levels and standards that we require today?"

The school has been protected for decades by north Florida politicians citing job loss and
economic impact.

There were calls for closure in 1915, when fire swept through a locked dorm and killed eight
boys. There were calls in 1918, when boys were found starving and dying of influenza.

"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this
kind?" said an editorial that year in the Tampa Tribune.

Floridians were outraged in the 1950s and '60s, when word spread that guards were beating
boys bloody with a leather strap.

"It is time that we quit being shocked every time an outsider visits Marianna," wrote an
Evening Independent editor in 1969. "It is time we found out why such conditions continue to
exist and who is responsible for them."

There were more calls for closure in the '80s, when boys were being hogtied and held in
isolation for weeks. In 1988, a consultant recommended the school be closed. His proposal
was swiftly denied.

"It's a hard thing to do politically for some people," said the chairman of the committee that
controlled appropriations at the time.

Each shut-it-down surge was met with promises. After guards were fired for beating a boy in
2007, the agency boss said Dozier would get better.

"There are systemic operational problems at our Dozier facility that span the chain of
command," he said. "We have to act decisively to change the culture of our Dozier facility."

Three years and two failed reviews later, the department is still talking about that change.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, says he's been assured by DJJ that Dozier is
improving. "They've said that safety of the kids is paramount and that we would be pleased
with what they have done there.''

Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, is lobbying the governor and other lawmakers to keep the
facility open, sparing jobs in her district. "If there are issues at Dozier, then let's help them
correct them and move forward."

Miller, the child advocate, said he is sympathetic to people losing their jobs, but believes the
situation could be offset by turning the Dozier property over to the Department of
Corrections for low security prisoners. "I don't believe that economic impact should be used
for subjecting children to inferior care."

Jobs are important, but not the only consideration, said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando and
the House criminal justice budget chairwoman.

"But at the end of the day, we have to consider — seriously consider — what's in the best
interest of the children," she said.

Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached
at or (727)892-2283. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727)893-8650.

[Last modified: Mar 08, 2010 08:47 PM]
Florida's oldest reform school has survived a century of
failure and scandal. Now lawmakers once again are
confronted with an uncomfortable question.  Edmund Fontain
Times Photographer