“Victims of Reform School Abuse” Bill Is Filed
On February 7, 2023, the “Victims of Reform School Abuse” House Bill 629 was filed in Florida. If the bill becomes a law, it would provide a mechanism for determining crime victim compensation eligibility for those who endured abuse while being detained at either the Dozier School or the Okeechobee School.
The act may be known and cited as the "Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and Okeechobee School Abuse Victim Certification Act,” the bill states.
“What happened at these reform schools cast a dark and sinister shadow on the history of the great state of Florida,” said Levin Papantonio Rafferty Attorney Troy Rafferty, who has been leading the legislative effort to pass a bill to compensate the victims of Dozier School for Boys for what occurred to them while they were contained detained there.
“We have fought hard to make the State feel the shame of its actions, and this bill is the first step toward going beyond public admissions of guilt and onto actual justice for men who suffered abuse as boys at these reform schools,” Rafferty said.
Despite a statute of limitations that prevents a standard path to recovery of damages through civil courts, Rafferty and LPR Attorney Mike Papantonio have never lost sight of the need to compensate Dozier victims. The attorneys have toured the site of the reform school on more than one occasion. They were accompanied by men who survived confinement and abuse at the institution and who emotionally recounted the horrors of their detention with Rafferty and Papantonio.
Laying the Groundwork for Victim Compensation
SB 629 defines a “victim of Florida reform school abuse” as “a living person who was confined at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys or the Okeechobee School at any time between 1940 and 1975 and who was subjected to mental, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by school personnel during the period of confinement.”
Provisions of the “Victims of Reform School Abuse” bill include:
- Requiring a person seeking certification as a victim of Florida reform school abuse to apply to the Department of State (DOS) by a specified date
- Authorizing specified persons to apply on behalf of the decedent
- Requiring the DOS to review and process completed applications within certain timeframe
- Prohibiting DOS from denying an application for specified reasons
- Requiring DOS to submit a list of certified victims to the Florida Legislature
- Providing exceptions from specified requirements for crime victim compensation eligibility for victims
Abuse at the Dozier School for Boys
Based in Marianna, Florida, the Dozier School had many names over the years: the Florida State Reform School, the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and most commonly the Dozier School. Many boys were sent to the school for the most minor of offenses, including smoking, truancy, and “incorrigibility,” the bill states.
The State of Florida opened the Dozier School in 1900, and reports of abuse and suspicious deaths peppered the facility’s history.
The Victims of Reform School Abuse bill cites testimonies that support these reports, including:
- Sworn testimony by former students who said they were beaten at Dozier’s “White House” facility
- 1958 testimony by a Dozier School psychologist who testified at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that a school administrator beat the boys with severe blows using a 10-inch-long leather strap and that the beatings constituted "brutality."
- 1962 report from a former Dozier employee who told law enforcement that several school employees were removed for making sexual advances toward the boys
- University of South Florida forensic investigation from 2013 – 2016, which revealed incomplete death records and 45 burials at the school between 1900 and 1960; excavations from the investigation uncovered even more burials.
Okeechobee School Abuses
When the Dozier School began to face the challenges of overcrowding, the State opened the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee and transferred Dozier staff members to work at the new facility. The abuses continued in the new institution.
The bill states that more than 500 former students of the Dozier and Okeechobee reform schools have reported physical, mental, and sexual abuse by school staff from the 1940s through the 1970s.
“The trauma they endured did not end when these schools shut down,” Papantonio said. “When you talk to them today, now grown men, it’s clear that trauma still lives deep inside them.”
Previous State Efforts Have Fallen Short
In 2017, the Florida Legislature passed CS/SR 1440 91 and CS/HR 1335, which resulted in the State issuing a formal apology to the victims of the Dozier School and the Okeechobee School and acknowledging that “the treatment was cruel, unjust, and a violation of human decency,” the bill states.
A memorial for Dozier School for Boys victims was erected and unveiled in a dedication ceremony on January 13, 2023. “The memorial in Marianna is designed to tell the story of the boys who lived and died while at the school,” stated a Florida Department of Management Services press release.
“It’s at least recognition of a problem,” Papantonio stated in an LPR press release about the memorial. “Now the Florida legislature has to take the next step, and that’s to compensate people for being beaten tortured, raped, and some of them buried in unmarked graves.”
Papantonio and Rafferty Are Committed to Repairing a Troubled “Troubled-Teen” Industry
Rafferty and Papantonio are participating in “The Florida Boys,” a documentary about the atrocities that occurred in the Marianna, Florida-based institution. The film is currently under production.
The attorneys hope to Florida legislation will help soothe some of the wrongs that were done at Dozier and Okeechobee. They are also working in the present to put an end to similar abuses at current-day reform schools, including the Ware Youth Center in Louisiana, and the “cash for kids” scandal involving two Pennsylvania judges.
About Levin Papantonio Rafferty
The Levin Papantonio Rafferty law firm has been representing injured people across the globe since 1955. The firm has gained national recognition as one of the most successful personal injury firms in the world and has been featured on CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox, as well as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Forbes, and National Law Journal.
Levin Papantonio Rafferty attorneys handle lawsuits throughout the country involving prescription drugs, medical devices, medical malpractice, car accidents, and business litigation. Levin Papantonio Rafferty has earned more than$30 billion in jury verdicts and settlements, litigating against some of the largest corporations in the world.
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