Five years ago, a group of men came forth with stories of physical and sexual abuse at a “reform” school in Florida. In the 1950s and 60s, they had been sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. They spoke of vicious beatings, molestations and even hushed-up deaths.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into the matter and found no evidence of foul play.
The University of South Florida, however, pushed forward to investigate. Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers made a grim discovery. In the woods surrounding the school’s Boot Hill cemetery, more than 50 grave shafts were uncovered.
Anthropologists, archeologists, students and police detectives continue the excavation. The state attorney general petitioned the courts to exhume the remains. The Florida Legislature and the National Institute of Justice have provided grants to help pay for it. The goal is to identify through DNA as many boys are possible and to determine how they died.
In the meantime hundreds of former residents have spoken out about their experiences at the facility.
MARIANNA, FLA. — The Florida School for Boys had been housing kids for six decades before Michael Tucker was sent there. An “incorrigible youth,” Tucker arrived at the facility, nestled deep in the woodlands of the Florida panhandle, in 1960. He was 16. There, Tucker received three severe beatings, one of which left him hospitalized for five days. “They decided to send me off and straighten me out,” the now 69-year-old Tucker said. “They sent me up there, and beat the hell out of me.”
An older resident, Tucker worked in the reform school kitchen. He recalls an 11-year-old child with a nervous tic. When the youngster came down the chow line, Tucker would always give the boy extra servings.
One day, officials at Marianna ordered Tucker into the White House — a small building on campus where hundreds of former residents say they received violent whippings.
Inside the building, he saw the boy from the chow line. He was lying on a bed, sobbing and yelling.
“They made me get at the head of that bed, pull his arms up behind his back while another boy held his feet,” Tucker said. “While they beat him, he was sitting near my face, screaming for his mama.”
Afterwards, the young boy could never look Tucker in the eye while passing through the cafeteria. That, Tucker said, hurt worse than any lashing.
Similar stories are not unusual among former Florida School for Boys residents. Many others recall being dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night — “going down,” as it was called. At the White House, guards beat them with leather straps, they allege. Some said they received more than 100 lashes per incidents, with guards often turning on a giant fan to muffle the boys’ screaming.
Even worse incidents are recounted. Several former residents accuse personnel of molesting them, and some even said staffers at the school murdered their friends.
For many, the psychological and physical trauma followed them into adulthood. Many said the abuse they experienced as adolescents and teens still feels just as vivid, disturbing and emotionally taxing to them today is it did half a century ago.
Some boys became drifters, some became alcoholics and many wound up as adult felons. Others, however, grew up to be pastors, high-ranking corrections officials and businessmen. Some even became multimillionaires.
Despite their different outcomes as adults, the “White House Boys,” as they identify themselves, remain unified by their childhood experiences. Silent for decades, they eventually came together once more, harnessing the power of the Internet not only to reconnect, but to publicize their abuses to the world at large.
The Florida State Reform School operated in Marianna for more than a century. Over the years, the school underwent numerous name changes. From its opening in 1900 to its official shuttering in 2011 — when it was known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys — the facility was plagued by allegations and confirmed accounts of abuse and wrongdoing. By 1913, the facility had been the target of no less than six state investigations. Six months after its closing, the United States Department of Justice released a report confirming numerous incidents of staffers using excessive force on residents, along with “inappropriate uses of isolation and extensions of confinement for punishment and control.”
Allegations of resident abuse at the facilities go as far back as 1903, with reports of children, some as young as 5, being chained to walls. Press clippings from the 1950s screamed headlines such as “State Board to Meet on Boy-Beating” and “Brutality Count to Be Aired.” In the early 1960s, one employee at the Okeechobee campus — a southern Florida site that opened in 1955 — sent a resignation letter to then-director Arthur Dozier stating that “conditions here have been such that to continue would soon, very probably, mean professional suicide.” In the 1980s, a class-action lawsuit filed against the facility resulted in the outlawing of both the “hog-tying” of juvenile residents and placing them in isolation for weeks at a time.
Despite these reports, many of which were later corroborated by state and federal investigators, the White House Boys said few people believed them when they spoke of their experiences in Marianna and Okeechobee.
“When you try to tell this to anyone … they tend to blow you off,” said William Haynes, 70. He entered the facility in 1957, at the age of 14.
In 1958, Dr. Eugene Byrd, a psychologist who had worked at the Florida School for Boys, testified before a U.S. Senate committee. He described the beatings he witnessed.
“If they’re not going to believe [Dr Byrd],” Haynes said, “they’re certainly not going to believe a 14-year-old boy.”
Brothers Charles and George Fudge both spent time at Marianna. Charles, 65, was 13 when he entered, while George, 67, was 14. Both served stints at the facility for grand theft.
“I never told anybody about the beating,” Charles said. “I think they put the fear in us that if we ever told anybody who came to visit, that we would get a beating much worse than the one we had received.”
George said he was told not to tell anyone about what he experienced. “Why tell if you’re going to get another beating?”
White House Boys President Dick Colon, 70, went to Marianna at age 13. He was sent to the facility in 1958 for car theft and incorrigibility — in short, general disobedience to parents, teachers and other authority figures.
There for 33 months, he never told his family about his abuse.
Like many White House Boys, he resolved to forget about what he experienced.
“It was such a beautiful place,” said Claude Robins, 75, as he recounted his first day at Marianna. “Great big pine trees, nice dormitories.”
He went into the facility in 1953 at age 14. He spent 16 months there for the crimes of theft and “waywardness.” Like “incorrigibility,” it was something of a catchall for juvenile misbehavior.
“One day I just ran,” Robins said. Later that evening, a state employee apprehended him. “I think they earned $25 apiece for being in on the capture,” he said. “The guy got out and put the pistol upside my head and drug me into the car.”
He was then taken to the White House and stripped down to his underwear. He was told to keep his face down and bite a pillow to silence his screams. “It’s a real small room,” he recalled. “It’s only about six feet wide.” As the leather strap cracked in the air, it sounded like bird wings flapping to Robins. When the paddle met flesh, it sounded like a shotgun blast. The most lashes he ever received, he said, were around 40 or so.
At the facility, Robins befriended a mentally handicapped boy. He recalled feeding him candy bars and frequently getting into fights to protect him from being bullied by other residents. One morning, Robins said he discovered his friend lying motionless. The night before, both he and Robins had been sent to the White House for punishment.
“I went to his bed to check on him and he was cold,” Robins said. “When I came in that afternoon, he wasn’t there.” Robins asked a cottage father what happened to him. “He’s dead,” the man said. He told Robins the boy was being taken to the mental institution and he died.
“No, he was dead, in that bed,” Robins said. “I’m sure of that.”
Charles Fudge recalled receiving 31 lashes on his third day at the campus. His brother George threatened to attack the guard who beat him, and George was soon sent to the White House as well. “They’d come and get you at 10 o’clock to midnight and take you down to whip you,” he recalled.
Two other Fudge brothers went to Marianna; one later committed suicide.
William Haynes compared his stay in Marianna to his stint in wartime combat. “If I had a choice to go back to Vietnam or go back to the White House, I’d dance all the way to Vietnam.”
He was sent to Marianna for stealing a car. To this day, he denies the charge. “At the time, I didn’t even know how to drive a car,” he said. “My feet wouldn’t reach the pedals.”
Several days after entering the facility, Haynes got into a fight and was sent to the White House. He received 45 lashes. Days later, he was approached by facility personnel in the middle of the night. He was forced to march across campus to another location before he fled. He was apprehended in town the next morning and received 100 lashes as punishment.
In all, Haynes said he received eight beatings while at the facility. In one incident he received 135 lashes, he said.
With the advent of the Internet, former White House Boys were able to reconnect on the Web to publicize their experiences. Many current members of the organization said they joined the group after reading articles or seeing stories about the reform school’s history in national publications and cable news programs.
Roger Kiser, founder of the official White House Boys organization, was another “incorrigible” child. He was sent to the reform school twice — in 1959 at age 12 and again the next year. He was 15 when he left the campus.
“Over the past seven years, I’ve seen people start talking about something they’ve never been able to talk about,” he said. “It enables them to deal with those emotions… and heal themselves.”
In 2009, White House Boys President Dick Colon was one of many former residents who initiated a class-action suit, which was later dismissed, against several state agencies. “We decided that we would come together and talk to some counsel about what had happened to us.”
Most of the boys who left the school, Colon said, wondered how they would ever put their abuse behind them. He said they felt relief in being able to look at each other and know what each other had experienced.
George Fudge said he still has nightmares about what happened at Marianna. By meeting with the group, however, he’s been able to exorcise some of his own demons.
Charles said the time at Marianna instilled anger and bitterness in some members, but the shared experience allowed the White House Boys to form greater bonds with one another. “We see so much of the same pattern through each other’s lives,” he said.
Former Florida legislator Rep. Gustavo Barreiro was appointed director of the state’s juvenile residential programs from 2006 until 2009. After receiving a phone call from a former resident of the Florida School for Boys, he began working very closely with the White House Boys. It was the first he had heard about abuses at the facility. He visited the town of Marianna shortly thereafter and spoke with a barber, who not only told him that the entire town was aware of abuses at the facility, but told him of rumors about secret onsite cemeteries.
“Other state legislators kind of felt like, ‘oh there’s really no proof of this,’” Barreiro said. “They warned me, ‘you should really not get involved in this.” They felt it could potentially embarrass the Department of Juvenile Justice and the state of Florida. Other state lawmakers, he said, advised him to appease former residents with “rhetoric,” and wait until the news blew over. However, the situation was so compelling that he couldn’t walk away from it.
“They were finding each other through the Internet, and the story wasn’t just one individual or two individuals,” he said. “This was much bigger than myself, much bigger than the Department of Juvenile Justice.”
The department, Barreiro alleged, was aware that abuse was occurring at the sites. “Their reaction has basically been the same reaction they have when any crisis happens [involving kids],” he said. “They circle the wagons, try to control the message, and try to control the damages that they could face politically or… financially.”
The abuses at Marianna and Okeechobee, he said, are incidents the state cannot shy away from. “From beatings to rapes, this is not just one man coming forth,” he said. “These are hundreds of men, telling the same story.”
Despite grievances the group may have with Florida’s government, Jerry Cooper, acting White House Boys president, praised the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
“I have already told the DJJ office I can’t believe the improvements that have been made over the past five years,” he said. “Boot camps have been shut down and at least six, seven, maybe more, child institution holding places have been shut down for good.”
The group, Cooper said, is keeping an eye on Florida’s juvenile justice system.
“The state is definitely working on making this a better place for the juveniles. As White House Boys, we’re going to be watchdogs.”
The White House Boys organization has sought monetary compensation in the past, but for most members, financial reimbursement isn’t the main concern; it’s ensuring that children in the juvenile justice system don’t go through the same experiences they did.
The main reason Charles joined the organization was to help prevent children from being abused in institutions. “If this keeps one child from being abused the way we were,” he said, “then money doesn’t mean anything to me.
Every year, the White House Boys make arrangements through the Department of Juvenile Justice to provide Christmas gifts to incarnated young people in Brooksville, Fla.
“A lot of them have no parents or parents that don’t care,” Cooper said. “A lot of them will not get a Christmas, unless we go up there and make sure they have that special day.”
Haynes, who worked in Alabama’s Department of Corrections for 30 years, said he wants Florida agencies to take greater measures to ensure the safety of children.
“Juvenile justice in Florida needs some standards,” he said. “I want to hear them preach it: It is not OK to harm children.”
As a reminder of Florida’s past wrongdoings, the names of all the White House Boys, he said, should be read aloud at every police academy in the state.
“I want Marianna brought up in every class,” he said.
Colon, who made his fortune as an electrical contractor, started a trust fund for children at the very facilities where he was beaten. He feels immense comfort knowing that no child in Florida will ever have to visit the White House again.