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Friday, March 20, 2009

Daughter of Dozier’s Doctor Wexler Speaks Out

Letter to the Editor, Jackson County Times

A few months ago, I became aware of the ongoing investigation of alleged abuse at the Florida School for Boys (FSB) which allegedly occurred several decades ago. I’ve read online postings by men who claim to have been victims at the school, investigative newspaper articles, and Sid Riley’s two-part article for the Jackson County Times. It also appears that while the State of Florida is conducting its investigation, there is considerable contentiousness taking place: one party accusing cover-up, another defending the institution and the town itself.
It is unfortunate that these allegations of FSB staffer misconduct were not filed until nearly 45 to 50 years after the events. Many of those who could testify as either defendant or witness to any abuse at the school are no longer alive. At least we have Mr. Riley’s article which follows the journalistic tradition of conducting interviews with the surviving individuals who had first-hand knowledge, especially those of the medical community.
My interest in the proceedings is to have the truth told, whatever it may be. Personally, I doubt the story of the "white house boys" as they tell it is 100% correct, but a complete denial of any wrong-doing by officials is not true, either. The purpose in my writing this letter is to add my own first-hand observations.
My father was Dr. Isadore Wexler, the physician at FSB from 1960 to 1970. My mother, Rella Wexler, was the executive secretary for the school’s superintendent (first, Arthur Dozier, then David Walters). Our family lived on the grounds during the ten-year time period. As a high school student, I regularly assisted my father in the campus clinic and his office.
My father’s specialty was penal institution medicine. His career included the Kentucky Institute for the Criminally Insane, Sing Sing Prison (New York), and Norfolk State Prison (a maximum security facility in Massachusetts). Over the years, he spoke regularly and graphically about what he did—and saw—in these settings. I grew up hearing about everything from his treatment of rat-bitten prisoners chained in a dungeon to his official duty of viewing and verifying deaths by electric chair.
During my father’s tenure at FSB, I became aware that “strappings” (this is what it was called in the 1960s) occurred, although I’m not sure who told me. My sister and I were told to stay away from the “white house.” We also knew about the on-grounds cemetery which already existed when we moved on campus in 1960. We were told that it was for boys who had died decades before during an epidemic. During the time we lived at FSB, I was never aware of any talk of current deaths or burials.
In his article, Mr. Riley wrote that if there were the abuse and mysterious deaths to the extent alleged, it most surely would have had to come to the attention of the hospital staff. I agree with his observation. No physician would have tolerated such outrageous mistreatment requiring extensive medical care without speaking up. I would have heard about it from my father, but didn’t.
In fact, shortly after my father came to the school, he had a confrontation with Superintendent Dozier about the boys going shoeless on the work crews. He treated so many foot injuries that he insisted the boys be required to wear shoes or boots. Mr. Dozier told my father that would ruin the “beloved image of the barefoot boy in the South.” If this type of injury was sufficient to annoy a physician—even one who had seen much worse—I cannot imagine him remaining silent about ongoing brutal beatings during the time he cared for the 800 boys.
The men who now insist they were so badly abused at the school certainly did not have a pleasant experience there. I cannot comment on their motives for waiting this length of time before coming forward. However, they deserve the right to see their allegations thoroughly investigated.
At the same time, I hope that the media covering this story will be unbiased, ethical, and immune to taking sides. As Jack Webb of Dragnet (one of my father’s favorite TV programs) used to say: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Sheila Wexler
Alexandria, Virginia
March 16, 2009

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