Cape Coral, Florida (News-Press) -- For more than 50 years, Jerry Cooper has been determined to right a wrong that affected hundreds of Florida boys.
The Cape Coral resident was partially relieved of that burden this week.
68, is one of the White House Boys at the Florida School for Boys. He
was one of hundreds of young and troubled youths who were sent to the
school and who were beaten and abused - some killed.
Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved a
permit that will allow University of South Florida researchers to exhume and identify bodies buried at the now-defunct school west of Tallahassee in Marianna.
"That was like someone took a ton of bricks off my heart," he said.
school, just south of the Alabama and Georgia state lines, was where
wayward teens, marginally criminal young men, runaways, orphans and
other Florida males ended up from 1900 to 2011.
Talk of abuse and deaths had percolated from the school for years, but investigations always failed to turn up evidence.
officials cited budget issues in 2011 when they closed the school, then
called the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. But the closure followed a
state police probe into the latest allegations that found no evidence
of any crimes.
was that investigation, Cooper said, that sparked former "students" at
the school to start publicizing the abuse they suffered at the hands of
staff and to push for the exhumation of bodies on the grounds.
who passed a lie-detector test about the abuse he suffered, said the
move by the Florida government provides some balm for the abused.
"It may take a while yet," he said. "But there will be some sort of closure for all. It has been one hell of a walk."
name White House Boys stems from the white building where punishment
and abuse was meted out on boys ages 10 to 16. Cooper said that, prior
to his time there in 1960-61, talk was that even kids as young as 6 or 7
had been there at times.
craggy-faced former heavy equipment operator, utility lineman, business
owner and country and western singer knows firsthand the wreckage that
came from the beatings.
own night of terror encompassed a severe lashing with a thick leather
strop - 135 lashes another student listening from an adjoining room
later said. The results stayed with him through a stint in the Army, two
marriages, jobs and to this day. His punishment came for allegedly
helping another youth try to escape, which he said he did not do.
still have severe anger issues. I take medications. I have been
diagnosed with PTSD," Cooper said. "Aggression breeds aggression.
There's no doubt about that."
His beating was so severe, he said, that his thin nightgown and underwear were embedded in his wounds.
had to report to work the next day," he said, despite not being given
any medical care. For months, he said, the wounds would reopen, and
there were times when he would walk around in blood-soaked clothing.
Work was as a teacher's aide, but Cooper said it was actual teaching.
teacher would read a book while I taught the class," he said. "But I
did accomplish a lot. I taught kids to read. They would come up to me
later and say 'Mr. Jerry, thank you for teaching me to read.' That was a
role as quarterback for the school's Yellow Jackets' football team -
which he said he was forced to do on penalty of going to prison -
couldn't sooth the trauma of being at the school.
said others fared even worse. "One of my best friends there, Edgar
Elton, was run to death in the gym. It was about 100 (degrees) in
said Elton, about 16, was forced to run during a football practice in
mid-July that was illegal, even at that time. "We weren't supposed to be
practicing in July," he said, and pointed to a photo of the team in
full-pads practicing that ran in a June 1961 issue of the school
The death was covered up, he charged, and made to look accidental.
He escaped the school as he approached his 17th birthday by joining the Army.
Army saved my life," he said. He never told the Army doctors who helped
heal his wounds about the beatings, nor did he ever tell his mother.
"They would have sent me back," he said.
gives a lot of credit to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi,
Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson for
love her," he said of Bondi. "She's a good little gal. She has been our
savior. Without them we'd have had a much harder road."
would also like to see some surviving staffers be punished and vowed to
continue working to that end, maybe by getting the U.S. Department of
month, researchers at the University of South Florida hope to start
exhuming bodies from unmarked graves, and perhaps return them to family
members for a proper burial.
Tuesday's vote triggered a round of applause from former Dozier students at the Cabinet meeting, including Cooper.
decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation," said
Nelson on Tuesday. "Nothing can bring these boys back, but I'm hopeful
that their families will now get the closure they deserve."
Bonner, another White House Boy at the meeting who called some of the
Dozier employees "vicious," said the university's work could help people
and families get answers about what happened at the school.
said another former student at the Tuesday meeting, Bryant Middleton,
who served in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart for his wounds, told
him that he would rather go back to war than go back to the White House.
Cooper has been trying to help other White House Boys through a website, officialwhitehouseboys.org, and counsels them .
His wife, Carol, fielded three calls Wednesday afternoon. "They're coming out of the woodwork," she said.
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