Lawmakers Start Process To Formally Say Sorry To Former Dozier Wards, Create Memorials

Apr 4, 2017

The former wards of the now-closed Dozier School for Boys in Marianna are one step closer to receiving a formal apology by the state of Florida. That’s the Florida Panhandle school where alleged abuse occurred for several decades.

 Former Wards Tell Their Story

Retired Army Ranger Captain Bryant Middleton, now a decorated Florida veteran, was just a kid when he went to the Dozier School for Boys in the 1950s.

“I served our country for over 20 years in combat, deployed across the world,” he said. “I’ve been on six of the seven continents in uniform. I’ve seen a lot of horror in my lifetime. I have! The battles of Dozier, though, are the ones that harmed me the worse, destroyed my life.”

Over the years, many men have come forward, talking about the sexual and physical abuse they suffered at the school. And, Bryant says he’s no different. Sent to Dozier for being “incorrigible,” he says he received brutal beatings at a building nicknamed the “White House” for infractions, like eating blackberries and not pronouncing a teacher’s name right.

Middleton says the most severe beating occurred when he and another boy decided to run away because they were so scared.

“Our cottage father found out about it,” he added. “2 a.m. the state car arrived at the cottage. Mr. Hatton, Mr. Tidwell, and the Superintendent, Mr. Dozier, took the two of us down to the White House and I was the first to be beaten. I lost count at 56. I passed out. I awoke in the other room, laying on the bed with a bloody nightgown and blood running down my leg as a child.”

And, he says he was also sexually abused.

“Once by a medical doctor, another by a gentleman who claimed to be a child psychologist,” Middleton continued. “I would tell you I would rather be sent back into the jungles of Vietnam, than to spend one single day at the Florida School for Boys.”

And, many other survivors say other boys fared worse because they died due to the abuse and were laid in unmarked graves.

That’s why Middleton says as his wounds continue to heal, he’s grateful Florida lawmakers are considering making a formal apology to the Dozier wards.

Pursuing Criminal Charges?

Stories, like Middleton's, are why Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is making this one of his priorities.

“I have six children. The youngest two are an eight-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl,” said Corcoran. “The youngest child who was tortured and abused in Dozier was six-years-old, and so, I looked into it, and I got with [Attorney] General [Pam] Bondi and there’s still one of these guards who tortured these children still alive. And, we went through every machination to try to figure out how we can still prosecute and bring justice. And, we’ll still work at it. We’re not going to give up yet.”

A Formal Apology and More

For now, a bill formally apologizing to the former Dozier wards unanimously passed its first Senate committee Monday.

“It 1) expresses regrets for a shameful past and a shameful history,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), the resolution's sponsor. “Secondly, it sincerely apologizes on behalf of the Legislature, and lastly, it declares a commitment to make sure these tragedies, these atrocities never happen again.”

Meanwhile, the House bill by Rep. Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville) is slated to get its first hearing Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. It’s chaired by Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor).

He says it includes creating Dozier memorials as well as a reburial effort of the unclaimed remains of boys unearthed on the property a few years ago by University of South Florida researchers led by Erin Kimmerle.

“The first to reinter the bodies of the young men who were lost in the dormitory fire to reinter those bodies at Boot Hill Cemetery in Marianna, the second is to reinter the unclaimed remains of the Dozier men who are currently in the care and custody of the University of South Florida, and the third is to have two memorials: one in Marianna and one in the state Capitol, so that never again shall we forget what happened at Dozier and we will be given—going forward—the responsibility of ensuring that nothing like this happens again to children under the care and custody of our state,” said Sprowls.

He says a lot of what’s included in the bill come from recommendations by the Dozier Task force—created by the state Legislature last year.

The House bill also includes language to name a USF forensic center after one of the Dozier victims. Forensic investigating helped USF researchers find the Dozier remains.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.