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Florida Closes Controversial Panhandle Reform School

2:06 PM, May 26, 2011   |    comments
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MARIANNA, Fla. -- A state reform school for boys in the Florida Panhandle where former students said they were physically and sexually abused some 40 years ago will close June 30.

The 185 employees at the North Florida Youth Development Center - formerly called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys - were informed Thursday that the Department of Juvenile Justice was closing the school and moving its 63 detainees to other facilities, the department's secretary, Wansley Walters, told the St. Petersburg Times.

The 111-year-old school in Marianna, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was once the largest reform school in the country with 698 students.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate allegations by former students from the 1950s and 1960s that staff abused them and other inmates in a building called "The White House."

In a final report released last year, investigators said they were unable to substantiate or refute those claims. A letter from a prosecutor issued along with the investigators' report said there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime.

Cuts in the Department of Juvenile Justice's residential services budget as the agency shifts money to services such as prevention and electronic monitoring led to the closure, officials said.

"I greatly respect the courageous efforts of the community and our own employees to move past the history this facility represents," said Walters, "but for those men who are known as the White House Boys, it is my sincere hope that they can close that chapter in their lives and find peace."

Former students and child advocates celebrated the closure.

"Wow, it's great to see that shop of horrors shut down," said Robert Straley, 64, of Clearwater, a former "White House Boy" who claimed he was beaten by guards. "It started out wrong right from the beginning. It was the worst thing the state of Florida ever did, and to think that they let this go on so long is just unbelievable."

The school was plagued by scandal soon after opening in 1900. Three years later, investigators found children "in irons, just as common criminals."

In 1914, six boys and two staff members died after they were trapped in a burning dormitory.

During a visit in 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed in state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk found holes in the leaking ceilings and broken walls, bucket toilets, bunk beds crammed together to accommodate overcrowding and no heat in the winter.

In recent years, the school failed two annual evaluations.

In March, a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court claimed children were still being abused and mistreated. The lawsuit, filed by Florida Institutional Legal Services on behalf of three clients incarcerated at the school, alleges children with mental illness and developmental disabilities are placed in isolation for days or weeks as punishment and are denied appropriate mental health treatment.

Associated Press

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