Florida Investigates Graves at Boys School

There are secrets hidden at the Florida State Reform School.

One day in the late 1950s, Richard Colon was working in the school's laundry room. After a long bathroom break, Colon, then a student inmate in his early teens, said he returned and found the room empty and quiet, except for one tumble dryer that was running.

A young boy had been shoved into it, he said.

"I looked around and I thought 'I could help him, but if I do, what will they do to me?'" he said, assuming the boy had been forced into the dryer as punishment. "So I left him. And he died."

"I think about him every day," said Colon, now 65 and living in Baltimore. "I think to myself, I could have opened that door and I didn't. That torments me."

Picture of mass grave.

Colon says he does not know what happened to the boy's body or who forced him into the dryer. But he and a group of men who were students at the school during the 1950s and 1960s believe his remains may be buried among 32 unmarked graves recently discovered near the school, where they suspect boys who were killed at the school were dumped.

Their claims, kept hidden for more than 50 years, prompted Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday to order the state Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the four neat rows of white crosses in Marianna near the area where the once segregated school used to house black inmates.

The men, now in their 60s, call themselves the "White House Boys," a name taken from the small, white cinder-block building where they say they were beaten repeatedly with a leather strap lined with sheet metal. Others say they were sexually abused while at the school.

"The beatings were ungodly. I thought they were going to kill me," said Roger Kiser, who said he was sent to the reform school from an orphanage in late 1958. "They would beat you for anything."

Officials at the school, now known as the Arthur Dozier School for Boys, and the state Department of Juvenile Justice have not disputed that some abuse took place and recently dedicated a memorial to the White House Boys.

Reform School of Abuse

A Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman said that the department did not hear about the abuse claims at the White House until last year and that the school has changed.

"We have zero tolerance for anything that would hurt a child in our custody," said spokesman Frank Panela.

Corporal punishment was banned in reform schools in 1967. But, as late as 1987, the state settled a lawsuit that claimed officials at Dozier and other reform schools shackled and hogtied students and kept them in isolation cells as punishment. The state did not admit any wrongdoing, but agreed to stop the use of hogtying and isolation cells.

When Robert Straley was sent to the school in 1963, he said he looked at the sprawling campus with cottages for the students, large oak trees, a swimming pool and gymnasium and "thought I was in heaven."

"I didn't know it was a beautiful hell," he said.

His first night, Straley said he and four other boys were taken to the White House for talking about running away. He was whipped 40 times, he said.

Straley, Colon and Kiser said boys were beaten for smoking, swearing or any number of other infractions. Kiser said school officials thought one boy was masturbating under the table in the dining hall. He was taken to the White House and never seen again, Kiser claims.

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