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No Longer Silent

The White House Boys speak out on abuses suffered at the hands of a Florida reform school.

>> Click here to read the main story "The Ghosts of the Past" by James Swift 

Bob Baxter.
Bob Baxter.

Bob Baxter was 15 when his mother asked a judge to send him to Marianna.

“I never saw a judge or nothing,” said the now 80-year-old Baxter. “I went to a courthouse and I sat in a chair outside. The deputy came and got me, and the next thing I know, I was in Marianna.” It was 1950.

After just three weeks at the facility, Baxter tried to escape. On the run for several days, he was apprehended by Marianna officials and taken to the infamous “White House,” where he was beaten with a wooden board. He made a second escape attempt, and received an even more terrible beating. “I woke up in the hospital,” Baxter said. “I never ran again.”

He joined the United States Marine Corps after leaving Marianna. His experiences at the reform school, he said, were worse than what he experienced in the Korean War.

“Nothing they could do to me in Korea,” he said, “matched Marianna.”

Joseph Johnson, 67, went to the Florida School for Boys’ Okeechobee campus at the age of 12. “The judge told me I was going down there to ride horses, play ball, go to school,” he said. “He didn’t know Okeechobee was the stepson of Marianna.”

At the facility, Johnson claimed to have been molested by staffers twice. The abuse he suffered in Okeechobee, he recalled, “messed me up really bad” and “gave me a lot of complexes.”

In the last few months before his release, Johnson slept in a broom closet. He had made a bed on the floor and used a nightlight on the wall to read passages from the Bible. He begged God to do anything to get him out of the facility.

For half a century, the only person he ever talked to about his experiences in Okeechobee was his wife. At the behest of a priest, he traveled back to the campus in 2000.

While the Marianna campus had “the White House,” the Okeechobee campus, Johnson said, had “the Library.” There, he said boys were often handcuffed to beds and brutally beaten.

During his visit, Johnson said his priest and his wife encountered a man that not only confirmed his stories of abuse, but actually showed them physical evidence.

“He opened up a desk drawer,” Johnson said, “and pulled out handcuffs, chains and the whips that they used on us.”

He described the leather straps used on children at the facility. “About five and a half, six inches wide, about two and a half feet long, with a big wooden handle on it,” he said. “When they beat you with that, you’re not going to walk or sit down for the next week.”

Other former Florida School for Boys residents have spoken of similar experiences:

Aaron Burns, 41, is one of the younger ex-White House Boys. He spent time at the Marianna campus from 1986 until 1989.

One day, he recalled getting hit in the head while watching television. He thought he had been struck by a mop by a fellow resident. However, when he awoke, his supervisors -- commonly referred to as “cottage parents” or “cottage fathers” by many White House Boys -- seemed less than concerned about his injury.

“I woke up,” he said, “and the cottage parents were still sitting at their desks, laughing.”

Growing up, Burns said, his stay at the facility filled him with confusion, anger and loneliness. “There’s a lot of dark secrets at that place,” he said. “If you made it after you got out of Marianna without going to prison, I’m surprised.”

James Denyke, 64, was sent to Marianna for being “incorrigible.” He arrived at the facility in 1964, at age 15. He went to the White House just once during his 18-month stay. “One time was enough for me,” he said. “I’d rather stick my head in the oven than go through that again.”

The smell of the room and the sound of the industrial fan, are scorched into his memory. “I hear that goddamn fan, because it was deafening,” he said. The worst part, he said, was having to listen to other children get beaten before him.

As an adult, he was given a three-year sentence for stealing a car. The vehicle, he said, belonged to one of his former cottage fathers at the Boys School. He drifted for several years afterwards, and developed a serious alcohol problem. Outside of sobering up, he said the greatest accomplishment of his life was receiving a full pardon from the governor of Florida. Today, he’s the sergeant-at-arms for the White House Boys; his motorcycle flies the official WHB colors.

He said he’s not looking for compensation from the state.

“An apology is what we’re looking for,” he said. “And them admitting wrongdoing for all of us who’ve suffered.”

Doug Stover
Doug Stover

Doug Stover was another resident at the Okeechobee campus. Now 63, he entered the facility in 1966, when he was 16 years old.

One day, another boy at the reform school attacked Stover. Later in the day, Stover cursed at him. Guards overheard Stover, and punished him by hitting him 35 times with a leather belt.

Cottage fathers at the campus, Stover said, periodically threw boxing gloves to residents and forced them to fight for their entertainment. The guards would make bets and laugh, he said.

After leaving the school, Stover did what many boys at the facility attempted to -- push the experiences to the recesses of his mind. Now in his 60s, he still feels traces of that boyhood fear.

He is unable to fully address his traumatic experiences at the facility, so financial compensation would do him little good, he said.

“I want the state of Florida to write me a personal apology, and I want it public,” he said. “I want them to hold themselves accountable for their action and inactions to the abuse of children.”

Number of Young People Arrested in Florida’s Public Schools Drops by Nearly Half over Last Eight Years

The number of young people arrested in Florida’s public schools decreased by 48 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to a new Florida Department of Juvenile Justice report.

Over the eight-year period, total public school arrests in the state fell from 24,000 to about 12,500 during the 2011-2012 school year. According to the report, 67 percent of all school-related arrests during the timeframe stemmed from misdemeanor offenses, with non-felony assault and battery, disorderly conduct and drug charges accounting for almost 56 percent of public school arrests over the eight-year period.

Additionally, 51 percent of school-related arrests last year were attributed to first-time delinquents, a 7 percent drop from 2010-2011 statistics. In all, 65 percent of school-related arrests in the 2011-2012 school year in Florida were dismissed, not filed or eventually dismissed.

In an press release, DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters encouraged the use of arrest alternatives for youth that commit in-school misdemeanors, including civil citations and intervention services.

“Misdemeanors accounted for 67 percent of all school-related arrests and 51 percent of schoolchildren were arrested last year for their first offense,” he said. “Youth who act up at school should not be deferred to DJJ for ‘punishment,’ forcing them to enter the juvenile justice system needlessly.”

Photo courtesy of zhangsan via Fotolia.

Florida DJJ Says Aftercare Contractors Overpaid; State May Replace Vendors with Probation Officers

UPDATE: The Henry & Rilla White Foundation, Inc. released a response to these reports, which can be found here: Letter to The Reader Forum - Miami Herald.

With more than $1.2 million in annual benefits and salary - a majority of which stems from state tax payers - Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice says it’s time to decrease the pay of William Schossler, president of  Tallahassee’s The Henry & Rilla White Youth Foundation.

Schossler, 65, heads a nonprofit that currently holds 23 statewide juvenile justice contracts in Florida, with the foundation managing numerous residential treatment beds and funding programs that grants adolescents access to therapy and counseling after leaving state care. In total, the Henry & Rilla White Youth Foundation’s juvenile justice contracts with Florida are tallied at an estimated $10.2 million in value.

The state DJJ, however, believes that Schossler’s pay - which in 2010, consisted of almost $400,000 in salary and more than $800,000 in additional compensations - is excessive, with Florida juvenile justice chief Wansley Walters stating that the funding should go towards youth services instead.

“It was never the department’s intent that such a large share of the funding would go to compensate the top administration of your corporation instead of into direct services,” Walters is quoted by The Bradenton Herald.

“There is no way that over the past couple of years you can have the level of executive compensation rise,” she continued, “without seeing a reduction in services.”

Walters suggests that the state end its contracts with aftercare service vendors, such as the Henry & Rilla White Youth Foundation, and allow juvenile probation officers to provide state oversight instead. The move, she stated, may save the state almost $12 million in expenses.

Schossler, however, disagrees with the DJJ about his pay.

“If there’s something wrong here, I’m sure my board will fix it,” he is quoted by the Bradenton Herald. “If anything, my board thinks I’m underpaid.”

Photo courtesy of skettalee via Flickr. 

Success in Juvenile Justice Diversions May Influence Treatment of Adult Offenders in Florida

In October, officials in one Florida community announced that its local police force would now have the ability to issue civil citations in lieu of formal arrests for certain crimes. The Leon County, Fla., measure targeting a largely adult-offender base takes many cues from the state’s juvenile justice system, which has seen vast improvements to juvenile crime rates due to lock-up alternatives.

According to the News Service of Florida  proponents of a statewide movement issue more citations to and arrest fewer adult offenders – if the individual has committed a non-violent crime and has no previous arrest record -- claim that such a policy would save the state tens of millions of dollars in annual incarceration expenses.

Tentative plans would require adult offenders in Leon County - which contains the state capital of Tallahassee - to undergo an assessment within three days of a citation, in addition to performing community service or receiving substance abuse treatment if it may have been a contributing factor to the crime.

Leon County officials began issuing civil citations for non-violent juvenile offenders in 1995. A Florida Department of Juvenile Justice report states that in 2009 and 2010, approximately 7,000 juveniles throughout the state were given civil citations, with only 7 percent re-offending. A 2011 report issued by the Associated Industries of Florida Foundation suggests that through diversion programs the state’s juvenile detention population could be reduced by as much as 40 percent.

“It worked so well with the juveniles that we think it’ll work really well with adults,” Smart Justice Alliance CEO and President Mark Flynn told ABC-affiliate WZVN.

Photo from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice website.