DeSantis signs bill compensating Dozier School victims who endured abuse

Roy Conerly says the Legislature’s decision was his birthday present.

For 15 years, Conerly traveled to Tallahassee for each legislative session to talk about physical and sexual abuse he and other survivors of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys experienced at the now-shuttered state-run institution in northwest Florida, and to ask the state to acknowledge how children had to suffer because of their failure.

This year in March, on his 78th birthday, the Florida Senate passed a bill that would provide $20 million to compensate victims of the Dozier School and another state reform school in Okeechobee County. Conerly said the pain he faced as a 15-year-old finally felt acknowledged.

“It’s the best present,” Conerly said. “When I did wrong, I had to pay a price. The state did wrong, and they have to pay a price. It’s only fair.”

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law in a private ceremony with some lawmakers and some of the longtime advocates, according to Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, making it official for Conerly and the others who have long traveled to the state Capitol hoping for state politicians to do right by them.

When Conerly came to Tallahassee, he often wore a black button-down shirt, emblazoned with “WHB” on the back. It stands for White House Boys, a moniker Conerly and other men gave themselves, named after the building on Dozier’s campus where boys endured brutal beatings.

It’s unclear how much each surviving victim of the Dozier School will get. The money will be split evenly among the men who qualify. Estimates of how many men are still alive vary from 300 to 500 to upwards of 1,000.

Many of the men who were sent to the Dozier school in the 1940s, 50s, or 60s as children have since died.

Bryant Middleton, one of the men who has for more than a decade traveled up to Tallahassee to speak about his and others’ experience at Dozier, was present at the governor’s private signing. Middleton said he was “elated” about the bill being signed, but said he was troubled at not knowing whether the men would get only a “pittance” by the end of it.

“We’ve got men that are literally living in their cars and under bridges,” Middleton said.

The bill DeSantis signed creates a program in the Department of Legal Affairs to review funds for victims. The funding would also apply to children who attended the Okeechobee School, which the state created because of overflow at Dozier.

Victims will have to submit reasonable proof they attended school between 1940 and 1975 and that they were a victim of mental, physical or sexual abuse, which can be proved by a notarized statement from the applicant attesting to abuse.

By taking money from the state fund, the victims are not entitled to any other compensation related to what they faced at the school. Applications are due by December 31, 2024.

Babbs Cooper attended hearings on the bill this year in honor of her husband, Jerry Cooper, who died in 2022. He was once the president of the White House Boys organization, which lobbied then-Gov. Charlie Crist to look into their allegations of abuse in 2009.

Babbs Cooper said though her husband couldn’t be there to see the fruits of his labor, the other men have become like family to her. She prayed for a day like today for 16 years. But on Friday, she said it was hard to see it happen without her husband.

“He fought the hard fight for 12 years,” she said. “They ran a hard, hard, hard million miles.”

Babbs Cooper said the grief men like her husband endured trickles down to their families as well. Family members of deceased Dozier victims are not eligible for the state compensation under the bill.

Cooper said the bill signing may bring closure to some, but she said there will never be closure for many. While she was grateful for the bill being signed, she said she felt the state could have given more money to the men.

Some of the surviving men agree that the state’s money can’t make up for the pain they endured. But for many, it felt like more of an acknowledgement of their struggle than the Legislature’s formal apology in 2017 session.

“The people that caused this also were the people that decided how much our pain was worth,” said Ralph Freeman, one of the surviving men. “And that’s bittersweet.”

In the sessions after that 2017 formal apology, Rouson filed bills year after year seeking to create a certified victim compensation program, but the effort always stalled out.

This year, the timing was right, Rouson said.

“This compensation fund does not compensate for what actually happened, but it’s all we have in our system of justice to bring closure,” Rouson said.

At committee hearings on the bill held throughout the winter, the men were there. They testified about being beaten with a thick leather strap, about being sexually assaulted by staff at night, about their lasting depression and nightmares.

They talked about all the boys who didn’t get to become old men like they did. Archeologists have unearthed dozens of unmarked graves on the school’s campus.

After lawmakers cast their final vote, officially sending the bill to DeSantis, some men draped their arms around each other. Some sang. Some proudly pointed to news cameras.

“Dozier lost,” they said.