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.Play

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.

The men said they were forced into a small, dank room and told to lie down on their stomachs on a bed covered in blood and other bodily fluids and grab the bed's metal bars. Colon said the boys were told if they yelled or whimpered, the whipping would start over.

"There were little pieces of lip and tongue where people were biting themselves trying to control themselves," said Colon, who was sent to the school in 1957 for stealing cars.

After one particularly bad beating, Kiser said he woke up in a school administrator's office. When he went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, "I screamed as loud as I could because I couldn't tell who I was."

He said he was beaten so badly that his underwear was stuck to his buttocks and he had to go to the infirmary to have pieces removed.

White House Boys

Once, Kiser said, a friend had been taken to the White House. School staff dragged the boy out of the building and left him on the ground, blood running out of his nose and mouth, Kiser said.

A group of boys crowded around to see whether he was all right.

"Roger, would you kiss me?" the boy asked. "Like when your grandmother kisses you when you were hurt because she loves you."

Kiser said he bent down on his knees and kissed the boy's forehead.

The three men said their time at the school left them angry and emotionally detached as they grew older. As the years passed, several of the White House Boys found each other, mostly through the Internet, where some had written about their experiences. They began advocating for an investigation into the abuse.

In October, Kiser, Colon, Straley and several other men returned to the school for a ceremony in which the White House was officially sealed and shut. They walked through the building and saw the graveyard.

Kiser's old friends suggested he light a cigarette, a small act of defiance nearly 50 years after he left the school.

"I couldn't do it. I was whispering, I was afraid," he said. "To see those walls and smell that smell. ... I was still scared to smoke, even at 62 years old."