TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Several men painfully recalled being beaten and sexually abused at a north Florida reform school as the state began the steps to formally apologize for the horrors they endured more than 50 years ago.
Bryant Middleton recalled being beaten six times for infractions that included eating blackberries off a fence and mispronouncing a teacher's name after being sent to the school between 1959 and 1961.
"I've seen a lot in my lifetime. A lot of brutality, a lot of horror, a lot of death," Middleton, who served more than 20 years in the Army, including combat in Vietnam. "I would rather be sent back into the jungles of Vietnam than to spend one single day at the Florida School for Boys."
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would formally recognize and apologize for the abuse at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, where nearly 100 boys died between 1900 and 1973. The school in Marianna 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of the Capitol in Tallahassee was shut down in 2011. The University of South Florida recently exhumed the remains of 51 bodies in hopes of identifying boys buried in unmarked graves.
A group known as The White House Boys, named for the white cinderblock building where boys were taken and hit with a long leather strap, has worked to get the abuse recognized. Lawmakers are finally doing so. The House proposes building two memorials, one on the Capitol grounds and one in Marianna, and plans to reintern remains found at the school.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran met with the survivors in his office before appearing with them at a news conference.
"It's a great disgrace. It's horrific," Corcoran told the men. "You can't fix that kind of horror. It's really a heartfelt apology."
"We know it didn't happen on your watch," Bill Price, 69, of Valrico, told Corcoran.
Earlier at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Middleton recalled passing out after being hit 56 times and waking up in a bloody nightgown. He talked about being sexually abused by a doctor and a child psychologist.
Richard Huntly, 70, of Orlando remembered being sent to the reform school when he was 11 because of truancy. He was forced to work in sugar cane fields, where he cut off part of a toe with a machete. He also remembers being beaten because black students weren't allowed to talk to white students.
"The beating never dies. The White House beatings? That is something you'd never want to experience. You do learn how to pray at the White House," Huntly said.
Jerry Cooper remembered a 2 a.m. beating in which he endured more than 100 lashes and a broken foot.
"I was forced to play football after that on a broken foot," said Cooper, 72, of Cape Coral. "I'm still crippled in that right foot."
Cooper said he still carries the anger with him to this day, and in the years after his release he was arrested for assault and battery several times. Asked about the state's plans to apologize, he said, "It's the most important thing that's ever happened in my life."