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Senators back compensating Dozier victims

Decades later, survivors known as “The White House Boys” still struggle when recalling the mental, physical and sexual abuse they endured while in the state’s care at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.

The men and their allies have trekked to Tallahassee for 16 years seeking “justice” for the brutality they suffered as children at the now-shuttered school.

With less than two weeks left in this year’s legislative session, the men notched a preliminary victory Tuesday when the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee signed off on a proposal (SB 24) that would create a compensation program and steer $20 million to former students of the reform school.

Charles Fudge, Ralph Freeman and James “Harley” DeNyke are among the men who have told lawmakers about the beatings, rape and torture they suffered while confined at Dozier. The men’s experiences still haunt them.

Cecil Gardner, now in his 70s, choked back tears Tuesday as he recalled being awakened in the night and taken to the building called “The White House,” where beatings and torture took place.

“I was beaten until the flesh was torn from my backside. … Beaten, for what? For nothing,” Gardner said. “Not only that, 12:45 one night, I can remember just like it was yesterday … (he) took me down to the White House and raped me. At 14 years old. … I’ve been living this day in and day out. How can grown men be put in a position to take care of young children, to rehabilitate them and yet they end up abusing them?”

Gardner, who is Black, said he was beaten for speaking with a white boy at the school, where even beatings in the White House were segregated. He pleaded with the Senate committee to “do something to make this right.”

The Dozier school was shuttered in 2011 after 111 years of operation. Researchers have found remains of dozens of students buried at the site, and dozens of other former students have never been located, according to testimony Tuesday.

The Senate measure would create “The Dozier School for Boys and Okeechobee School Victim Compensation Program” to compensate “living persons who were confined” to Dozier or the Okeechobee School, another reform school, between 1940 and 1975 and “who were subjected to mental, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by school personnel.”

The measure would set up a process for survivors to apply for compensation and provide $20 million to the program. In addition, the bill would allow the state Department of Education to award high-school diplomas to former students who have not completed graduation requirements.

The Senate committee’s unanimous approval Tuesday sent the measure to the full Senate. The House is slated to take up a similar measure (HB 21) this week.

Freeman, 67, told the Senate panel Tuesday that he is the “baby of the bunch” of Dozier survivors, who often refer to themselves by the years they resided at the school.

“You have a chance and an opportunity to make a wrong right. For 16 long years, they’ve been coming to this place seeking justice,” Freeman said, pointing to a group of men seated behind him. “Sixteen years, too long. Me trying to sleep last night to get here today, too long. I have a problem wondering, am I worth it?”

Lawmakers in 2017 provided $1.2 million to cover the costs of reburials and memorials for victims at the Dozier school. Also that year, the Florida Legislature issued an apology to victims.

Charles Fudge, a 76-year-old Homosassa man with a shock of white hair, told the Senate panel that he was 12 years old when he was sent to Dozier. He recalled being given “31 licks” from a leather strap by one of the school employees.

“You can only imagine what that does to the bottom of a 12-year-old boy. … It’s something that doesn’t go away,” Fudge said. “I just pray that there’s never children of those ages that have to go through and endure what we did.”

Troy Rafferty, an attorney with the Levin, Papantonio, Rafferty firm who represents the men, said that 183 children who “were processed” into the Dozier school have never been located. He said school workers used “the same weapon every time” to beat the students — a 20-inch mallet with a leather strap attached to the end with rivets.

“I had one of the most horrific and sad days of my life when I had the opportunity to walk through the Dozier school grounds with these fine gentlemen. And I can tell you, when you walk through those grounds, the evil that is still there is still palpable. You can feel it. You can sense it,” Rafferty said.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said his “heart breaks” for what the men experienced as children.

“I can’t imagine. None of us can imagine what you went through, what you endured,” Boyd said. “This legislature is very, very sorry for what happened to you. And that’s not enough, I realize. We are here to make some sense of justice come from such a bad, bad time of your life.”

Senate bill sponsor Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has spent years filing legislation seeking compensation for the Dozier victims. Rouson, who is in his final year in the Senate because of term limits, called the Senate committee’s approval of the measure Tuesday “bittersweet.”

“Sweet, because the Senate leadership has put some funding behind this bill for the first time in years. Bitter, because it’s a reminder and a retelling of the stories of the horrors that occurred there, that should never happen again,” Rouson told The News Service of Florida.

Rouson said an estimated 300 to 400 victims would be eligible for compensation under his bill.

“This is not a lot of money, but it’s more than an apology. It’s a step beyond just recognizing that it occurred, and hopefully for some of these men, it will provide closure,” Rouson told The News Service of Florida.

DeNyke, 75, who attended Tuesday’s committee meeting, said in an interview he was sent to the Dozier school in 1964 for being “incorrigible.” He described being forced to get on all fours in the White House on a thin mattress covered in other children’s blood, vomit and tears.

“We accept the apology. There is no amount of money you can put on pain, the physical, mental abuse that we suffered. You can’t camouflage 60-plus years with a dollar,” DeNyke said.

Speaking to the News Service, Paul Elgin said it’s “been a long time” that he and others have sought compensation for the wrongdoing.

“We’re just going to have to see where it goes,” Elgin, 74, said. “We all went through a lot, over and over and over. We keep having to do this. Maybe we’re coming to a close.”

Dara Kam – News Service of Florida