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Editorials

State Right To Raise Ghosts Of Dozier School's Past

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: May 21, 2013 at 08:29 PM

It's a sad and appalling fact that children were routinely beaten and abused while in custody at Florida's old training schools for juvenile offenders.

The question now rightly being asked by Gov. Charlie Crist - at the urging of a group of men who were inmates at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna - is whether some of the atrocities committed at the school included murder. At the center of the investigation are 32 graves of unknown persons, marked only by crude white crosses fashioned out of old pipe.

There will be some who will scoff at the governor's request that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate who is buried on what once was Dozier property. Chances are any perpetrators are dead or very old and in an era of tight state resources, some would say FDLE should be focused on more recent crimes.

But a full accounting of what occurred at Dozier is as important as reopening the investigations of the Rosewood massacre, lynchings and the slaying of civil rights-era activists.

Confronting its past will help Florida build a better future for all its citizens.

And if you don't think that youngsters in state custody still face threats, remember Martin Lee Anderson, the young inmate who died after a confrontation with guards in a Panama City boot camp in 2006.

As longtime Florida children's advocate Jack Levine notes, the question of whether children in the juvenile justice system are as vulnerable today as they were at the height of Dozier's horrors remains a relevant one.

The young inmates in Florida's juvenile justice facilities - while tough and dangerous in many cases - remain vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Even after decades of improvements, the juvenile justice system lacks the resources to deal with all the youngsters it must oversee.

The bone-chilling history of Florida's treatment of young offenders is well-documented in the 1983 class-action civil rights lawsuit, known as the Bobby M. case. The case, brought on behalf children who were mistreated in the state's juvenile justice facilities, including Dozier, ushered in a new era of reform.

At Dozier, the atrocities documented included the actions of the "dog boys," a group of guards who used attack dogs on the boys. Louis de la Parte, the crusading former state senator from Tampa who recently passed away, personally saw the blood-splattered "White House" building where vicious beatings occurred.

That history was revisited recently when four men who had been inmates at Dozier met on the Internet and formed the White House Boys - a group devoted to bringing attention to the brutal history of the place. One of those men, Dick Colon, says he saw the body of a boy who had been forced into a large industrial clothes dryer by a guard. Others told of seeing boys who had gotten in trouble being led away and never seen again.

Claudia Wright, who had been an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union on the Bobby M. case, has heard rumors that the Dozier graves contain the bodies of children killed at the hands of their captors. While no evidence surfaced in that probe, Wright said the oppressive and brutal environment that existed at Dozier is no folk tale.

Undoubtedly, Dozier is a different place now. Home to about 135 young offenders, it has been modernized and inmates are provided with education, health care and a chance to set their young lives straight. But anyone who has walked on its isolated grounds can feel it is a place haunted by its oppressive past.

This fall, the Department of Juvenile Justice took a symbolic step in acknowledging that awful past when it marked the old white building with a plaque and a tree planted in memory of pain and suffering that occurred there.

What happened at Dozier is a matter of civil rights and human rights that demands action beyond symbolism.

Whoever is buried beneath those crudely made crosses deserves the dignity of a full investigation. And if they were victims of a crime, they deserve the full measure of whatever justice can be delivered.

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