Jackson County Times

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Organizing to Save Dozier

By Bo McMullian

Prompted by local and state NAACP officials, Jackson County citizens formed a committee Monday to fight any plans the state has for closing Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

The NAACP called the meeting, held at the agriculture center on Penn Avenue in Marianna, and it was conducted not by local organization members but by the Florida state President, Adora Obi Nweze, and Tallahassee branch President Dale Landry. Local representatives, including Jackson County branch President Richard Patterson, were on the panel as well.

The meeting was well attended, to the surprise of Nweze, and the crowd of about 45 included Marianna Mayor Paul Donofro Jr., county Commissioner Chuck Lockey, chamber of commerce and Democratic Party representatives, current and former Dozier employees, St. Petersburg Times reporter Ben Montgomery (co-writer of the paper’s series on Dozier entitled “For Their Own Good’--available on the internet) and local Republican Party chairperson Sandy Helms, who was so outspoken and well-received by all, she was made chairperson of the new committee.

An atmosphere of enthusiasm, cooperation--even healing and reconciliation over past reports of child abuse at Dozier--filled the large meeting room as discussions included reminiscences of the annual Christmas program at the institution that attracted thousands of visitors back in the 1960s “before the fences.”

There was no official word from the state on any closing or downsizing at Dozier which employs about 200 persons, nor was there any word of any racial discord, at the institution or elsewhere. But Landry, who is a corrections department and legislative liaison for the NAACP, claims the state is looking to go with 20-bed or fewer capacity facilities. Neither Landry nor anyone else claimed any possible closing was due to the reports of brutal, violent abuse meted out to boys who misbehaved at Dozier back in the 1950s and 1960s. Most importantly, there are no reports, from anyone, of any continuing abuse. The exhaustive St. Pete Times ‘expose’ cites only two cases since 1968, the last one being nearly 20 years ago. By that measure, Dozier might be considered one of the safer among correctional facilities. But that’s not what most people noticeably remember.

Yet, the NAACP Monday seemed bent on, and it was successful at, getting Jackson County to officially declare institutional child abuse “unacceptable” and to be “immediately condemned” and the perpetrators “brought to justice.” Landry and Nweze repeatedly spoke of “reform” at Dozier, saying they want a committee to study and recommend ways the boys could have more access to vocational training opportunities, yet it was not established whether such reforms are possible these days.

Nweze advocated a statewide effort towards reform at all Juvenile Justice facilities and said Jackson County needs to adopt a pro-active approach in regard to keeping and improving Dozier.

“There is a rising concern that the NAACP wants to put on the front end of the burner, not the back end,” she said. “We do know that the upcoming state legislative session will consider cuts being made; we do not know what they will be. But we know there is a need for juvenile justice reform. The press has talked about the past at Dozier but we don’t care about that, we care about now.”

She thinks reform is needed in the public school system as well, before juveniles wind up at Dozier. “The truth of the matter is, our children who go into our schools go into a pipeline to prison. When minorities and the underprivileged fail the FCAT tests, they don’t get diplomas, then they meet ‘zero tolerance’ programs, then they end up in juvenile facilities with high recidivism. Somebody has to speak for the children.” She said closing Dozier would “devastate the community. The priority, in addition to children, is the workforce. If discussions are not held until the zero hour, that would be too late. I’m here because I believe any action on Dozier should be for the community to decide; decisions should not be made in Tallahassee. The empowerment of the people is critical.”



Landry spoke of a “Missouri model” that state lawmakers are considering which would change DJJ institutions. “It’s a trend to downsize to 20-25 beds. Discussions are being held to close Dozier.” He wants, very much, for Dozier to stay as it is but with the addition of more vocational programs such as auto mechanics. “If the juveniles leave Dozier with less education than they had when they came in, that is wrong. If we close, there will be no change. If we want to see change, there is no better place than Dozier.”

Landry says negative publicity is hurting Dozier’s chances of staying at Marianna. “Every week the papers in South Florida are coming out with bad press on Dozier. The discussions (at the state level for closing) are going on. We need to stand firm. The community needs to speak out. We want Dozier and will not allow the abuse.”

Landry, a Panama City native, said the lingering statewide bad press is unfair and unwarranted. “I have to tell them that’s not the case up here,” he said. “I’m from Panama City, I know better.”

At that, Donofro raised his hand and asked a question. “This community is filled with people not supportive of abuse. Is Jackson County known as a place that is accepting of abuse?”

Landry replied, “lot of people look at North Florida as redneck. Those who grew up here, including myself, resent that. But it’s when people don’t shout out about abuse that becomes an assumption that it is condoned--a perception is given due to the silence.”

Local Republican Party chairperson Sandy Helms then said her group can remedy that. “It’s on the agenda at our next meeting. We’re going to set up a committee. I can help you facilitate that process,” she told the NAACP. Nweze right away suggested that Helms chair a committee to be formed immediately. A piece of notebook paper was passed around the room with several persons signing up.

Robert L. White Jr., a former Dozier employee, signed up. He spoke briefly, explaining how great the institution was when he worked there from 1966 to 1999. “The place was so self-sufficient the boys there didn’t need anything (from the outside) but salt and pepper. I know a boy who came there not knowing how to crank a lawnmower; he later became rich in the auto repair business in Jacksonville. Kids who couldn’t hold a needle learned upholstery. Fence? We didn’t need a fence. The only troubles I had with the boys were them begging for cigarettes. When the boys came there and stayed for an average of 18 months, they left with almost a high school education. We gave them a purpose and a goal--to not leave there the way they came in.

“Then, they took that away,” he said. “The state made bureaucratic changes. Well, we don’t need leadership from Tallahassee, we need this committee!”

That committee was formed and Nweze was beside herself with joy. “I’m pleased--I’m tickled--to see what happened here tonight. You have no idea,” she told the crowd in closing. “You have renewed my faith.”

“This is a blessing,” Landry added.

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