A recent CNN report tells the horrific tale of the abuse of George Owen Smith, whose remains have been uncovered on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida decades after he went missing. Smith, as the story goes, was one of hundreds of young boys who suffered years of abuse at the hands of guards at the Florida juvenile facility in Marianna, Florida. The facility, which closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons, operated for over 111 years. It has been the subject of ongoing complaints and legal actions as the men come forward to tell the tales of the brutality they suffered there.
Reports of abuse began to surface as early as 1903, just a few short years after the school, which has had several names, opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School. Following those early reports of boys in leg chains there were many other reports over the years of boys suffering abuse at the hands of staffers at the school. As the reports would surface there would be talk of reform, but frequently the abuse would intensify.
Some the men who suffered abuse in their teens are now in their 60s and still suffer from the memories of the beatings and abuse they suffered at the hands of school employees under the watch of Florida state officials. Many of the survivors have lived lives tainted by criminal behavior, inability to maintain healthy relationships, emotional problems and substance abuse. Many have gone on to live productive lives, but almost all still carry scars from the horrific abuse they suffered at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. One survivor, Jerry Cooper, president of the Official White House Boys Organization, started a website and began collecting the memories, sharing the stories and honoring the dead.
The men, encouraged by Cooper’s initiative and the exposes published in 2009 in the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, have embraced a shared history and an effort to right what was wrong. A quote from the website that unites these men in their tragedy states says that the state of Florida beat and scarred their bodies, wounded their souls and dampened their spirits. These men have joined together in an effort to support and encourage one another and to bring healing.
For the family of George Owen Smith that means finally knowing what happened to the young man who disappeared from the school when he was 14 years old. Ovell Krell had promised her parents that she would continue trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance in 1940. On July 25, 2014, she received word that Smith’s remains had been identified based on DNA testing. Forensic anthropologist, Erin Kimmerle, having heard the stories of the brutality that occurred at the Dozier School, heads a team attempting to identify the remains of boys who died while in the state’s custody.
There is a small graveyard with plain white markers indicating that approximately 31 bodies are buried there, but Kimmerle’s team has already unearthed the remains of 55 bodies. There are no records and no way to identify the remains unless family members come forward and provide the necessary DNA. For Krell, finally able to keep her promise to her parents, there is finally some closure. For many others there is no relief and still a sense of unbelievable horror surrounding the terrible abuse at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys.
By Constance Spruill