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Dozier School for Boys victims may finally receive reparations

Johnny Lee Geddy, shows reporters a book he wrote about the experience Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Geddy had just attended a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where a proposal to formally apologize for the abuse that happened at the school was discussed. The proposal was passed that year. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Phil Sears/AP
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FR170567 AP
Johnny Lee Geddy, a "White House Boy" at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Jackson County from 1957-61, shows reporters a book he wrote about the experience Tuesday April 4, 2017, in the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Geddy had just attended a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting where a proposal to formally apologize for the abuse that happened at the school was discussed. The proposal was passed that year. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

A proposal to grant reparations to victims of abuse at several former Florida reform schools is moving through the legislature.

Hundreds of children who attended the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and the Okeechobee School were mentally, physically, and sexually abused between 1940 and 1975. Dozens were killed. A bipartisan bill going through the legislature would establish the Dozier School for Boys and Okeechobee School Victim Compensation Program, which would provide financial support to living victims.

Richard Huntly is President of Black Boys at Dozier Reform School. He’s been advocating for himself and other victims for decades. During a hearing Tuesday on the bill, he recounted how he was beaten at Dozier.

“No mercy. All I heard was get up, stand in that corner. When I got up off the bed it seemed like I was so heavy behind, but I was afraid to reach behind me for fear that all I would bring out from behind me was flesh and blood,” he said.

Bryant Middleton, another survivor, talked about how the children were sexually abused. He said employees would come to the dorms in the middle of the night and select boys to take to a separate building where they were raped and beaten.

“Two, three state employees would come into the dormitory and walk back and forth between the beds. Suddenly you would hear a child scream ‘No! Please! Not Me!’ They would take that child by the arm and take him outside and put him in the car. He would be gone for a couple of hours. And suddenly the gravel sound came back. They returned that child. That child was told ‘Get in your bed!’ Often, his pajamas were covered with blood,” Middleton said.

The legislature was historically slow to confront the past abuse, only officially recognizing it occurred in 2017. After Tuesday’s comments from survivors, Hollywood Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo said it's wrong that the men have had to keep coming to the legislature year after year to advocate for justice. Citing his experience as a prosecutor, Pizzo added that far exceeds the number of times any victim should have to recount their trauma.

“Again, I would tell a victim, they only have to speak at most three times. Some of these people have spoken 16 years in a row. Shame on us,” he said.

The compensation bill is being carried by Democratic Senator Darryl Rouson. He says no money could ever fairly compensate the men or the families of those who didn’t survive the schools.

“The voices that we heard today were not just the voices of those who came here, but they are speaking for the missing. They are speaking for those that we can’t talk to but we can pray for,” he said.

The committee unanimously supported the bill, but it has one more stop before it can go to the Senate for a vote. A companion bill in the House is nearing its last committee stop as well.

Tristan Wood is a senior producer and host with WFSU Public Media. A South Florida native and University of Florida graduate, he focuses on state government in the Sunshine State and local panhandle political happenings.