Local author Roger Dean Kiser was raised at the Children’s Home Society of Florida, an orphanage in Jacksonville. He said acting like a normal boy while he was there landed him in one of the most notorious reform schools in the country.
The school, the Florida School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, was not known for its success in reforming troublesome young boys.
Kiser, a Brunswick resident since 1999, now with children and grandchildren of his own, said he and his friends at the orphanage weren’t criminals, they were just kids. They climbed trees and buildings, hopped the orphanage’s fence to pick fruit and were just general nuisances. It was nothing unusual for kids at that age. Most of it stemmed from the orphanage not providing enough for them to do.
Nonetheless, such behavior was enough for the orphanage’s staff to have many of the boys sent to the reform school in Marianna, Fla., a city of less than 10,000 located on the Florida Panhandle.
“When we drove out to it, Freddy Hutchins, who was with me from the orphanage and became a police officer in Atlanta and later he died from cancer, when we drove in and saw the swimming pool and football field and all, we thought ‘we are in heaven, something to do, we can be kids.’ And boy was I wrong.” Kiser said.
He recalled one instance in particular, fairly quickly after he arrived. Kiser could hardly remember what he had done, but he was beaten until he was bruised from the back of his knees nearly to his shoulders.
“When they finished beating me, when they took me back to the office, the secretary, I was so bloody they couldn’t tell who I was,” Kiser said.
When he mumbled a promise to expose them under his breath, he said he was threatened with death should he try to talk to anyone about the abuse.
Decades later, the school was shut down in 2011 after 111 years of operation. Allegations of abuse — sexual and physical — rape and murder have dogged the institution since at least the 1970s, when Kiser and others first started trying to bring the truth to light by contacting then-Governor Reubin Askew.
It is unclear exactly how far back the abuse goes. Kiser will attest it was going on when he was there, in the 1950s and 60s. There have been several investigations, some claiming no wrongdoing was committed. In the end, enough evidence was collected to prompt the Florida legislature to plan an official apology.
Kiser has written more than 30 books, and has also had his stories included in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. He has written about child abuse, his experiences at the reform school and the system that allowed it all to happen.
“The White House Boys: An American Tragedy,” which Kiser wrote in 2009, kicked off a wave of renewed interest in what happened at the school. The title refers to those that were beaten and sexually assaulted in a small, white, square building that they came to call the White House.
After the book hit shelves, he was contacted by Ben Montgomery with the Tampa Bay Times, who wrote an in-depth report titled “The Lost Bones.” Kiser credited Montgomery with helping to bring together more than 500 men that suffered abuse, physical and sexual, at the hands of the school’s staff as children.
Since then, investigations have been conducted, news articles written and television segments aired. In 2012, University of South Florida Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle started an archeological excavation to determine exactly how many boys were buried there.
“(The school) said ‘we have records, there’s only 22 bodies in that graveyard and we know who they are,’” Kiser said. (Kimmerle’s archeological team) started digging and did the penetrating radar and they kept finding bodies, and eventually the state says ‘that’s far enough, you aren’t going to go into the dump, you’re not going to go into anything,’ and when they finally stopped them at 55 bodies — you know, they were under the roadway, they were under the bushes, they were all over.”
What they found isn’t even close to the total, Kiser says. He doesn’t think it will ever be known exactly how many people are buried in unmarked graves.
“There’s plenty more, there’s hundreds,” Kiser said.
All the work done by Kiser and other victims hasn’t gone to waste. Two resolutions are before Florida’s House of Representatives and Senate. According to the text of Florida Senate Resolution 1440 it is “a resolution acknowledging the abuses experienced by children confined in the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and expressing the legislature’s regret for such abuses and the commitment to ensure that the children of the State of Florida are protected from the abuses and violations that took place at such facility.” Florida House Resolution 1335 says the same.
“I know that now that they’ve admitted that this happened and could happen, it will not happen again to the children in custody,” Kiser said. “That’s was this was about. We got the school closed where it happened several years back, we got the man who was in charge of all this, Arthur G. Dozier’s name taken off the school, exposed who he was.”
Florida’s Republican Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran apologized publicly at a press conference held Tuesday. Close friend of Kiser, fellow victim of the school and retired Army Ranger Captain Bryant Middleton also spoke at the conference. He spoke on the abuse he suffered as well, saying that nothing could heal those wounds.
However getting back at the school or the staff responsible for the beatings he suffered hasn’t been Kiser’s main motivation.
“The boys there, we weren’t criminal. Elvis Presley had just come out, and rock too, so they were smoking, skipping school, running away from abusing homes, cursing, standing on the street corner, this kind of stuff,” Kiser said.
Nothing the boys had done warranted the kind of abuse they received, he said, and the school stunted their emotional and mental growth during a crucial stage of development.
“Why did I do it? I did it for two reasons. Florida, when I was in the orphanage, Florida was my parents. They had an obligation not to treat me like that. They had an obligation not to try to molest me, they had an obligation not to beat me bloody, they had an obligation to take care of me, so I didn’t look at them as being a reform school, I looked at them as my parents,” Kiser said.
Another reason was because the school had affected him in ways he hadn’t seen until he had his own children. His daughter was found shoplifting at a local supermarket, and he punished her the way he had been punished. He is not proud of it.
“That’s what they taught me to do when somebody steals, or somebody cusses or somebody smokes or somebody doesn’t follow directions. I was wrong and it didn’t turn out to be a good situation,” Kiser said. “I see now why the recidivism rate of the school was 99 percent at one point for going to prison or going back to the school.”
He is happy today because, more than anything, no one will be suffering at the Florida School for Boys again.
“(My daughter) forgave me, but I’ve never forgiven myself,” Kiser said. “That’s why I have pushed so hard to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Kiser said he will be sitting in the gallery, along with as many White House Boys as can attend, to hear the official apology for the indignities they suffered.
“They’ll put a memorial in Tallahassee and Marianna, although I think they just want to forget it happened, and the White House will always stand in memorial to what happened to the boys there,” Kiser said.
The apology is scheduled to be delivered Monday at the Florida capitol in Tallahassee.