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FL Sen. Committee approves $20 million compensation to Dozier School victims who suffered abuse

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FL Sen. Committee approves $20 million compensation to Dozier School victims who suffered abuse

Feb 27, 2024 | 11:27 am ET
By Mitch Perry
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FL Sen Committee approves $20 million compensation to Dozier School victims who suffered abuse
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Democratic State Senator Rosalind Osgood comforts Cecil Gardner after his testimony about the abuse he received at the Dozier School for Boys on Feb. 27, 2024 photo credit: Mitch Perry)

For more than a decade, victims who suffered from rapes and beatings while attending the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in North Florida have told their painful, gut-wrenching stories to state lawmakers about that abuse — but have never received compensation for their pain and suffering.

That may now change, after a committee in the Florida Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that includes $20 million to provide compensation to approximately 400 still living victims of the abuse they suffered as young teens in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I’m hoping that what we have gone through and the message that we have brought here to the Capitol, that all minds would come to fruition that whatever the amount of money, that we deserve it, “said Cecil Gardner, 77, after the vote. “But you can’t put a dollar amount on the suffering and the physical abuse that we have gone through. So, we’re hoping that with our presence and our testimony, that everything will work out in our favor.”

Gardner was one of a handful of elderly gentleman who gave raw testimony to the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee about the abuse they received at the Dozier School for Boys, a now closed state-run juvenile detention facility that closed after more than a century.

“I was only 14 years old when I went to Dozier School,” Gardner said, his voice breaking. “Just a child. I was beaten until the flesh was torn from my backside and you go into the Dozier School now and you look up against the wall and you see blood and flesh where young 11 and 12 and 13-year-old kids was beaten. For what? For nothing. For nothing!”

Troy Rafferty, an attorney representing some of the victims, told lawmakers that the guards at the Dozier School used the same weapon in all of their beatings. “It was a 20-inch mallet with a leather strap attached to the end, with metal rivets,” he said. “So that when they hit the children, they would rip their flesh.”

FL Sen. Committee approves $20 million compensation to Dozier School victims who suffered abuse
Aerial view looking north over a section of campus at the School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. 1900 (circa.) Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida.

According to the State Library and Archives of Florida, “the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was a high risk residential commitment facility operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice for male youth 13 to 21 years of age who were committed by the Court. The school originally opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School. It was later known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys (1914-1957), the Florida School for Boys (1957-1967), and finally the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The school closed in 2011.”

The closure came after a federal investigation in 2011, and lawmakers gave a formal apology to the survivors back in 2017. But legislative attempts by State Sen. Darryl Rouson, of the Tampa Bay area, to get the survivors financial compensation has always previously come up short.

The bill (SB 24) requires the state’s Department of Legal Affairs to accept, review, and approve or deny applications for the payment of compensation claims under the bill. Applications for compensation under this section must be submitted by December 31, 2024. An application must be made by a living person who was confined to the Dozier School for Boys or the Okeechobee School, which opened was opened in Okeechobee in 1995, and was also plagued with reports of abuse.

The measure also authorizes the Florida Commissioner of Education to award a standard high school diploma to a person compensated under this program, if they have not completed high school graduation requirements.

Several lawmakers on the committee apologized to the Dozier victims sitting in the committee room and acknowledged that no cash amount could ever suffice for the abuse that they suffered from the state.

“I’m deeply sorry for what happened to you,” said Broward County Democratic Sen. Rosalind Osgood. “I know that no amount of money or no words can take away your pain, but I do want to tell you this morning that I love you. I love you. And I pray in the days to come that you will have at least a sense of peace and knowing that we care, and that we are doing the best we can to acknowledge that.”

The House bill sponsored by Escambia Republican Michelle Salzman (HB 21) has been placed on the special-order calendar in the House for this Thursday. It does not have the amendment with the $20 million attached, but Rouson said that should happen when the bill goes before the full House.

“I think we’re in lockstep,” he said of the House measure.

On the floor and in an interview with the Phoenix, Rouson praised Senate President Kathleen Passidomo for giving authorization for the $20 million.

“Justice sometimes comes slowly and in increments,” he said. “But it nevertheless arrives, and we have one more step to go, but we are here today because of the leadership of the Senate. And I’m grateful.”

Rouson said, “If there are 400, which is the estimate that I’ve heard, then that’s about $50,000 a piece. No amount of money can really erase and provide justice, but it can help a little bit with closure, and it recognizes the value of these men.”