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Thursday, Aug 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: ‘Children came out worse than they went in’

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2014 at 06:47 AM

In the hot Florida summer of 1958, 14-year-old Truman Glenn Thompson of Auburndale was caught stealing a watch at a McCroy’s department store. Although Truman was a feisty lad, his older brother, Wesley, said he had never been in serious trouble with the law.

But Truman went before a judge in Polk County, who heard the evidence and then asked his mother if she could control her son. She said no, she didn’t think she could. Even though an aunt stepped up and volunteered to take the boy in, the judge decided Truman should be sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna.

It was renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys about a decade later, and that’s how we know of it today. It is the school where researchers from the University of South Florida have discovered 55 unmarked graves in the Boot Hill Cemetery, along with uncounted horror stories of beatings from guards and sexual abuse.

Truman was sentenced to a year and a day.

The watch he pilfered was valued at $2.75.

The boy who went in there was not the same one who came out, family members said.

“It was designed to be corrective, but children came away worse than when they went in,” brother Richard Stacey Thompson said.

His brothers say Truman endured whippings that would now be unthinkable. Former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa has stepped to the forefront of a movement in Tallahassee to provide reparations for victims at the school, which closed in 2011.

That’s a good step.

But how does the state make it up to Truman? His brothers say he changed dramatically for the worse after his release. He had problems with alcohol and drugs. He bounced from job to job. He fell in with some bad company. In 1978 he had a wreck while driving drunk and died a few days later.

He was 34.

“Knowing what happened to him there almost makes me feel better about the way he turned out,” said Wesley. “It makes me feel like there was more of a reason for it.”

As we sat in Wesley’s north Tampa apartment — his brother, Stacey, was on the phone from Georgia — I mentioned that it seemed like Truman had a wild streak as a young boy. Did his experience at Dozier make it worse?

“You better believe it,” Wesley said.

Both brothers told of visiting Truman at the school and hearing stories of physical abuse he endured at The White House, a notorious place where punishment was meted out with a leather strap or wooden paddle.

“They called them spankings,” Wesley said. “They were really beatings.”

On one occasion, after getting into a fight, Truman had his hands strapped to a bar over his head and was hit more times than he could count. Stacey often visited from nearby Eglin Air Force Base, where he was stationed, and heard Truman tell him about “the cruel people who ran that place.”

Those young boys killed at Dozier weren’t the only victims in a chapter of Florida’s history that should never be forgotten. A scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011 blamed the state for failing to protect students confined at the school. Groups such as the White House Boys Survivors fight to keep the memory alive.

Since many of the worst offenses occurred decades ago, though, the Florida Legislature hasn’t shown much appetite for compensating victims. And what about those like Truman, who are dead? Many of the guards who participated in the beatings are dead.

So, how does one find justice in this case?

I posed that question to his brothers.

“What would be justice? There is no punishment now for the people who did this,” Stacey Thompson said. “Their punishment is when they have to stand before their creator and answer for what they did.”

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