The school was first organized under an 1897 act of the legislature and began operations on the Marianna campus on January 1, 1900, as the Florida State Reform School, under the control of five commissioners appointed by the governor, who were to operate the school and make biennial reports to the legislature.
Some time later, the commissioners were replaced by the governor and cabinet of Florida, acting as the Board of Commissioners of State Institutions. In 1914, the name was changed to the Florida Industrial School for Boys and in 1957 to the Florida School for Boys. In 1967, the name was finally changed to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in honor of a former superintendent of the school.
Throughout the school’s 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff.
In 1903, an inspection reported that students at the school were commonly kept in leg irons. In 1914, a fire in one of the dormitories killed six inmates and two employees, who were buried at Boot Hill Cemetery located behind the north campus.
On September 21, 1934, 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and his 15-year-old brother Hubert were accused of stealing a typewriter from the back porch of a woman’s house. The local sheriff decided to send both boys to the Florida Industrial School for Boys, citing their crime as “malicious trespass”. Just 38 days after arriving there, Thomas died. His death certificate cited cause of death from pneumonia. Years later, his nephew, Glen, decided to bury Thomas’ body back home. When Glen requested an exhumation from the school, they told him they had no records as to where he was buried.
In 1940, Owen Smith was sent to the school for wrecking a stolen car. Shortly after arriving at the school, Owen tried to escape but was caught. Owen escaped again in December 1940 along with another boy. On January 1, 1941, the school’s superintendent, Millard Davidson, sent a letter to Owen’s parents. It read, “…so far, we have not been able to get any information concerning his whereabouts.”
Owen’s mother replied that they were planning to travel to Marianna to search for their son. Soon after, they got a telephone call letting them know that Owen’s body had been found underneath a house.School officials said his body was so badly decomposed, they couldn’t determine cause of death but suspected he died from the cold.
Owen’s didn’t believe it. According to his sister Ovell Krell Smith, now a retired Lakeland police officer, the boy who was with Owen said he was last seen running across a field with guards shooting at him.
His family asked his body be taken to a local mortuary where they would collect his remains, but upon arriving at the school, they found he was already buried. The rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in town wrote to the family, letting them know that he had performed the burial service and that, “It was in the Burial Plot of the School, that is kept nicely cleaned and cared for, and will be looked after in the years to come.”
That letter is the only proof that Owen was buried in Marianna or that he even died. His family has been unable to obtain a death certificate and the Bureau of Vital Statistics has no record of his death either.
Earl Wilson was 12 when he was sent to the school in 1944 on a larceny charge. He died 72 days later while detained in a tiny 7- by 10-foot building with eight other boys, ages 11 to 17. Known as a “sweat box,” the shed had a bucket for a toilet, a bucket for drinking water, one set of bunk beds and a constantly burning light bulb. Some of the boys had been there days, others weeks.
Earl’s death certificate says he was autopsied and the cause of death was “Head Injury, Blows on Head.” But the doctor’s conclusion was inconsistent with the testimony of the boys confined with Earl. Four boys were convicted of murdering the 12-year-old and sentenced to life in prison. The prosecutors relied on testimony from the four other boys.
Earl’s family later heard from another boy who said Earl died when school officials stuffed his nose with cotton as punishment for smoking. The boy also said staffers would administer beatings three or four times per day.
In 1968, Florida Governor Claude Kirk visited the school where he found overcrowding and poor conditions, saying that, “somebody should have blown the whistle a long time ago.” Officially, corporal punishment was banned at the school that same year.
An inspection in 1982 revealed that boys at the school were hogtied and kept in isolation for weeks at a time. In 1985, information emerged that ex-inmates of the school were tortured by being handcuffed and hung by the bars of their cells, sometimes for over an hour. The prison guards stated that their superiors approved of the practice and that it was routine.
In April 2007, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walt McNeil fired the acting superintendent and an officer following an investigation into the abuse of inmates, saying the action was a call for a “change of culture” at the school.
In 2008, the school scored poorly on it’s annual inspection and was placed on “conditional status” and failed it’s inspection the following year. Investigators reported a large number of allegations of abuse and mistreatment by guards, untrained staff, and a lack in supervision. Mary Zahasky, superintendent since 2007, stepped down soon after a performance evaluation that cited the report’s findings.
One boy released from Dozier after a 10-month stay at Dozier said, “I learned more about stealing cars and breaking into places than I knew going in.” He said he was never abused there but witnessed a group of guards “restrain” his friend by dragging him across the grass and bending his legs back behind his head.
In a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010, 11.3% of boys surveyed at the school reported that they had been subject to sexual misconduct by staff using force in the last twelve months, 10.3% reported that they had been subject to it without the use of force and 2.2% reported sexual victimization by another inmate.
In July 2010, the state announced its plans to merge Dozier with the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center, creating a single facility but instead, closed both facilities on June 30, 2011, claiming “budgetary limitations.”
On December 9, 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Christ directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the allegations of abuse, torture, and murder brought forward by the White House Boys. While students at the school, whenever they were disciplined, they and others were sent to a small white building located on the South Side campus. The building became known as the “White House” and the former students who were punished there refer to themselves as the “White House Boys.”
Recalling his time in the White House, Alan Sexton said, “There was blood on the walls, blood on the mattress I was on, blood on the pillow. It smelled to high heaven. They turned on a great big industrial fan to keep people from passing by to hear the screams.”
The claims included that there was one room for whipping white boys and another for black boys and were carried out with a 3-foot-long belt made of leather and metal and were thorough enough that the recipients’ underwear became embedded in their skin. One former inmate claimed that he was punished in the White House eleven times, receiving a total of over 250 lashes. Others alleged that they were whipped until they lost consciousness and that the punishments were made harsher for boys that cried.
Some former inmates also claimed that there was a “rape room” at the school where they were sexually abused. Another inmate claimed he had seen a boy trapped in a running laundry dryer at the school and suspected the boy was killed.
Governor Christ requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determine: 1) the entity that owned or operated the property at the time the graves were placed, 2) identification, where possible, of the remains of those individuals buried on the site and 3) determine if any crimes were committed, and if so, the perpetrators of those crimes.
During the 15-month investigation, over one hundred interviews of former students, family members of former students, and former staff members of the school were conducted which produced no concrete evidence linking any of the student deaths to the actions of school staff, or that there had been attempts to conceal deaths. None of the bodies in the school’s cemetery were exhumed during the investigation.
A forensic examination of the white house building was conducted and found no trace evidence of blood on the walls.
In January 2010, the Department of Law Enforcement released its findings:
This investigation included over one hundred interviews of former students, family of former students, and former staff members of the school. The interviews confirmed that in addition to the implementation of the Individual Rating System, school administrators used corporal punishment as a tool to encourage obedience. The interviews revealed little disagreement about the way in which corporal punishment was administered. The former students were consistent in that punishment was administered by school administrators and adult staff witnesses in the building referred to as the White House. The former students were consistent in stating that a wooden paddle or leather strap was the implement used for administering punishment. The area of disagreement amongst former students was the number of spankings administered and their severity. Although some former students stated that they were “beaten” to the point that the skin of their buttocks blistered and bled profusely, there was little to no evidence of visible residual scarring. A secondary disagreement was the former students’ perceptions of the punishment process. Some former students stated that their spankings caused them no psychological harm and that they learned from their mistakes while others stated that, mentally, they suffered greatly as a result and still do so to this day.
Some reports by former students stated that in addition to corporal punishment, they were also subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of former staff members or other students. With the passage of over fifty years, no tangible physical evidence was found to either support or refute the allegations of physical or sexual abuse.
After interviewing investigators and attorneys representing both the White House Boys and an administrator, and after reviewing the Department of Law Enforcement’s report, State Attorney Glenn Hess concluded that he would be unable to prove or disprove criminal wrongdoing in the case in a court of law and announced that no criminal charges would be filed in the case.
The Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice published a report in December 2011 of their findings about staff at the school, who were cited for use of excessive force, inappropriate isolation, and extension of confinement. The report reads:
The youth confined at Dozier and at JJOC were subjected to conditions that placed them at serious risk of avoidable harm in violation of their rights protected by the Constitution of the United States. During our investigation, we received credible reports of misconduct by staff members to youth within their custody. The allegations revealed systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls. . . .
These systemic deficiencies exist because State policies and generally accepted juvenile justice procedures were not being followed. We found that . . . staff did not receive minimally adequate training. We also found that proper supervision and accountability measures were limited and did not suffice to prevent undue restraints and punishments. Staff failed to report allegations of abuse to the State, supervisors, and administrators. Staff members often failed to accurately describe use of force incidents and properly record use of mechanical restraints.
Erin Kimmerle is a forensic anthropologist and University of South Florida associate professor who is leading a USF team of anthropologists, biologists, and archaeologists exploring the Marianna campus. The stories of the White House Boys piqued her interest. She was especially curious why there are no records of where those who died there are buried. Kimmerle commented, “When you look at the state hospital, the state prisons, the other state institutions at the time, there are very meticulous plot maps you can reference. Or if you are a family member today, you can say, ‘Where is my great-aunt buried?’ and they can show you exactly where. So, why that didn’t happen here, I don’t know. But that does stand out.”
The team used ground-penetrating radar and excavations to identify where bodies are buried. However, in order to determine if the cause of death was from injury, illness, or murder, the bodies must be exhumed, which can be done only if a family member requests it. By December 2012, the researchers indicated that there are at least 50 graves on the grounds and that a second cemetery is likely to exist.
Glen Varnadoe’s uncle Thomas was sent to the Florida School for Boys in the 1930s and died there a month later. Varnadoe wants to exhume his uncle for burial at the family’s cemetery near Lakeland. During a visit to Dozier School in the 1990s, a staff member showed him where his uncle might be buried. That location was not the same as the area where the most recent graves were found, and the state limited the USF team to searching the existing cemetery grounds. When the state announced plans to sell much of the Dozier property, Varnadoe filed suit and a judge issued a temporary injunction blocking the sale until Thomas Varnadoe’s body was exhumed. State officials subsequently granted the university team permission to search all areas of the former facility for possible burial sites and requested federal funds to pay for a forensic examination of all graves on the grounds.
On August 6, 2013, Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet issued a permit allowing University of South Florida anthropologists and archaeologists to excavate and examine the remains of any and all boys buried at the Dozier site. Exhumations began on August 31; according to an Associated Press report:
Robert Straley, a spokesman for the White House Boys, said the school segregated white and black inmates and that the remains are located where black inmates were held. He suspects there is another white cemetery that hasn’t been discovered. “I think that there are at least 100 more bodies up there”, he said. “At some point they are going to find more bodies, I’m dead certain of that. There has to be a white graveyard on the white side.”
Bones, teeth and artifacts from grave sites were sent to the University of North Texas Health Science Center for DNA testing. In January 2014, the University of South Florida announced that excavations have yielded remains of 55 bodies, almost twice the number official records say are there.
Since the investigation began, six bodies have been identified; George Owen Smith (found dead underneath a house after escaping in 1941), Thomas Varnadoe (reportedly died of pneumonia in 1934), Earl Wilson (reportedly murdered by four other boys in 1944), Bennett Evans (an employee who died in the 1914 dorm fire), Sam Morgan (his death was never reported), and Robert Stephens (stabbed to death by a fellow student).
Since the USF investigations began, many Marianna residents have spoken out, saying everything heard by the media so far has been one-sided. During a press conference in March 2014, a group of former Jackson County Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Year voiced their opinions on the media coverage of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
Royce Reagan, the 2002 Citizen of the Year a former school band director and currently hosts cable-access television programming created at Chipola College said, “I’m accusing you media people of sometimes grabbing stories from somewhere else and believing it. This is a great town to live in and the people that are alive and well don’t like what’s been going on and it’s not the truth. The truth is at that courthouse”, he said while pointing at the building behind him, “in the records; it is at Dozier, in the records. As a citizen of Jackson County, I think we need to reverse this a little bit and quit letting outsiders come in here and stir up something that is not the truth”.
Dale Cox, author, area historian and the 2012 Citizen of the Year said, “For five years we’ve heard the same allegations over and over and over and over with no factual basis behind them,” he said referring to claims of abuse suffered by students at the hands of their guardians at the school. He then went on and gave some examples of news reports and stories he found were false.
He cited a story from a Panama City station that quoted Robert Straley, spokesperson of the White House Boys, who said, “I say that there is 200 kids buried there, and they may not find them all”. Cox asked, “Have 200 bodies been found? No. Have you gone back and corrected that story? No.”
Another station based in Alabama ran a story that was generally sympathetic to the people of Marianna, a small town that was getting international attention, but the one aspect of the piece that Cox didn’t agree with. Over a person who was defending his career at Dozier, the station decided to superimpose a graphic of a man holding a whip. Cox said that was unfair to the people of Jackson County and called for the station to issue an apology and correction.
“The media should afford the people of this community the same treatment that you give a bunch of former juvenile delinquents who come up here and make wild allegations that have been proved to be incorrect”.
In April 2015, former students made accusations that murder had occurred at the Dozier’s overflow school, the Okeechobee School for Boys which also closed in 2011. One former student claimed he witnessed one boy get taken behind a barn and never return.
Investigators spent three days using bulldozers to clear debris and cadaver dogs to search for the supposed bodies that were buried there. Having found no human remains, the investigation was closed.
Robert Straley responded:
I want to thank Captain Rhoden, Under Sheriff Noel Stephen and Sheriff Paul May of the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office for their effort in investigating the allegations of abuse and possible murder that may have occurred during the 1950-1960’s at the facilities. Also to the dog handlers who worked very hard in some terrific heat and harsh conditions. The reception we received from Captain Rhoden and his team was a totally different experience from the citizens and police in Marianna. They would not even so much as give us the time of day. Sheriff Paul May gave us a statement that surprised me. He said, “we have no doubt that there was excessive abuse and force that occurred back then but we have no specific names or locations, no known graves and no cemetery in which to help us in our search. Not one person in Marianna has owed up to the fact that underage boys were flogged for 68 years. Flogging is torture. One policeman there said “this town is sewed up tight. No one is going to talk to you.”
In Marianna, Professor Kimmerle had a cemetery in which to start and found there were not 31 graves at the “Boot Hill Cemetery” and that they ran into the woods just 15 feet away. She cleared a 20′ x 60′ strip and found the additional bodies. The 25 acre site at Okeechobee is filled with small hills, fallen trees and debris so bad the dogs could hardly get through it. They even brought in heavy equipment. This was done at much expense and hard work. I believe they did the only thing they could, ground penetrating radar was not even an option as Professor Kimmerle told Captain Rhoden. To clear that much land and flatten it out could cost up to a million dollars. This case is closed unless the Department of Justice went into Marianna and were to take an interest in Okeechobee which I doubt would happen. We thank you for doing this when you did not have to but you did the right thing. We feel you did your very best.
Despite this, other former students have come out and said they didn’t try hard enough, others claiming that bodies weren’t found because many of the boys were fed to hogs.
As for the Arthur G. Dozier school, the state plans to take over management of the property once USF forensic anthropology researchers complete their work of analyzing the human remains they exhumed from the cemetery. One concern was brought up by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who cited issues involving the preservation of artifacts unearthed, the storage and reinterment of the remains of those identified, and decisions regarding appropriate memorials.
He said, “This story is not going to be swept under the rug … Is the state taking ownership of telling this story?”