Breaking News
More () »

Dozier school grave exhumations offer solace for some

For more than 50 years, Jerry Cooper has been determined to right a wrong that affected hundreds of Florida boys.

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.

Cooper,68, is one of the White House Boys at the Florida School for Boys. Hewas one of hundreds of young and troubled youths who were sent to theschool and who were beaten and abused - some killed.

Gov.Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet on Tuesday approved apermit 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.

Theschool, just south of the Alabama and Georgia state lines, was wherewayward teens, marginally criminal young men, runaways, orphans andother 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.

Floridaofficials cited budget issues in 2011 when they closed the school, thencalled the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. But the closure followed astate police probe into the latest allegations that found no evidenceof any crimes.

Itwas that investigation, Cooper said, that sparked former "students" atthe school to start publicizing the abuse they suffered at the hands ofstaff and to push for the exhumation of bodies on the grounds.

Cooper,who passed a lie-detector test about the abuse he suffered, said themove 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."

Thename White House Boys stems from the white building where punishmentand abuse was meted out on boys ages 10 to 16. Cooper said that, priorto his time there in 1960-61, talk was that even kids as young as 6 or 7had been there at times.

Thecraggy-faced former heavy equipment operator, utility lineman, businessowner and country and western singer knows firsthand the wreckage thatcame from the beatings.

Hisown night of terror encompassed a severe lashing with a thick leatherstrop - 135 lashes another student listening from an adjoining roomlater said. The results stayed with him through a stint in the Army, twomarriages, jobs and to this day. His punishment came for allegedlyhelping another youth try to escape, which he said he did not do.

"Istill have severe anger issues. I take medications. I have beendiagnosed 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.

"Ihad to report to work the next day," he said, despite not being givenany medical care. For months, he said, the wounds would reopen, andthere 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.

"Theteacher would read a book while I taught the class," he said. "But Idid accomplish a lot. I taught kids to read. They would come up to melater and say 'Mr. Jerry, thank you for teaching me to read.' That was ajoy."

Even hisrole 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.

Coopersaid others fared even worse. "One of my best friends there, EdgarElton, was run to death in the gym. It was about 100 (degrees) inthere."

Coopersaid Elton, about 16, was forced to run during a football practice inmid-July that was illegal, even at that time. "We weren't supposed to bepracticing in July," he said, and pointed to a photo of the team infull-pads practicing that ran in a June 1961 issue of the schoolnewspaper.

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.

"TheArmy saved my life," he said. He never told the Army doctors who helpedheal his wounds about the beatings, nor did he ever tell his mother.

"They would have sent me back," he said.

Coopergives a lot of credit to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi,Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson forTuesday's move.

"Ilove her," he said of Bondi. "She's a good little gal. She has been oursavior. Without them we'd have had a much harder road."

Cooperwould also like to see some surviving staffers be punished and vowed tocontinue working to that end, maybe by getting the U.S. Department ofJustice involved.

Thismonth, researchers at the University of South Florida hope to startexhuming bodies from unmarked graves, and perhaps return them to familymembers for a proper burial.

Tuesday's vote triggered a round of applause from former Dozier students at the Cabinet meeting, including Cooper.

"Thisdecision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation," saidNelson on Tuesday. "Nothing can bring these boys back, but I'm hopefulthat their families will now get the closure they deserve."

JohnBonner, another White House Boy at the meeting who called some of theDozier employees "vicious," said the university's work could help peopleand families get answers about what happened at the school.

Coopersaid another former student at the Tuesday meeting, Bryant Middleton,who served in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart for his wounds, toldhim 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.

More Stories on the Dozier School for Boys:

Before You Leave, Check This Out