To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
Roger Dean Kiser was 12 years old when he was first sent to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna. That was in 1959.
The state-run reform school became the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
In the 1950s and 1960s, former residents say they were beaten and some of their friends were killed.
“The first thing I noticed is men would come into the dorms at night and the boys would be taken out,” Kiser told Here & Now. “Some would never come back.”
Kiser says he was brutally beaten, witnessed rapes of boys by staff, saw boys taken to be beaten who never returned and even witnessed the death of one boy.
“I’ve only been able to describe it almost as a concentration camp,” Kiser said. “You have to be very careful — you don’t see, hear or say anything. And if you do, they’re going to get you, and they’re liable to beat you to death or you’re liable to disappear in the middle of the night.”
Kiser says the title of his 2009 book, “The White House Boys: An American Tragedy,” refers to the small building where boys were brought to be beaten.
The Dozier School was closed in 2011, but questions remain as to how many of the “disappeared” boys are buried on the school grounds.
Researchers have found evidence of nearly 100 bodies buried on the property.
Earlier this month, the Florida legislature approved the exhumation of the bodies. The digging is slated to begin Labor Day weekend.
Kiser said the “disappeared” boys will finally be reunited with their families and receive proper burials.
“I think the governor, the state of Florida, owes every one of these boys a public apology,” he said.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Researchers from the Anthropology Department at the University of South Florida are getting ready to delicately plow the grounds of the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. For decades, boys sent to this reform school said young inmates were beaten, even tortured, that some disappeared, that some were killed.
A 2009 investigation found no criminal activity, but more former students came forward. Then radar detected over 100 bodies buried on the campus in unmarked graves. Investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed many of the allegations. The school was closed in 2011.
Earlier this month, Governor Rick Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet voted to allow the independent university researchers to exhume the bodies, to complete an investigation but also return the bodies, whenever possible, to families and descendents.
Now this is a terrible story. A warning: It's very difficult to listen to. But some of the boys, now grown men, are relieved it's finally being heard. Sixty-seven-year-old Roger Kiser lived at Dozier from the age of 12 to 15. His book about his experiences there is called "The White House Boys: An American Tragedy," and he joins us from the studios of WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. Roger, welcome.
ROGER DEAN KISER: Thank you.
YOUNG: Quite a story. First of all the title, "The White House Boys"?
YOUNG: And what does that refer to?
KISER: Basically it's a small building in the Dozier School where they actually beat boys with a leather strap, two piece of quarter-inch leather about three feet long with a piece of sheet metal sewn in between.
YOUNG: All right, well this is a terrible story on so many levels. Tell us first: How did you end up at that school? And that's part of the terrible part of the story, how some of the young boys made their way there. It was originally called the Florida Industrial School for Boys, and you went in 1959 why?
KISER: I was raised in Children's Home Society in Jacksonville, Florida.
YOUNG: An orphanage.
KISER: Yes. And there was very little for us to do. So of course kids get into trouble. We were climbing the oak tree, climbing the pine trees. And one night we went out. The Jaycees in Jacksonville had bought the girls some bicycles, and we'd never ridden bicycles before.
So one night a bunch of us went out of the dormitory, got on the girls' bicycles, was riding them around the grounds. Matron Mother Winters and caught us, called the police. The next thing you know, we're in front of the judge, and he sent a bunch of us off to the Florida Industrial School for Boys.
YOUNG: How old were you?
KISER: I was 12 or 13 at the time.
YOUNG: Well, and we understand that there were other things in your background that might have provoked you to run away from the orphanage on occasion.
KISER: Well, I was molested from probably the age of six or seven up until I was about 12, and that was one of the reasons I kept running away.
YOUNG: This is a tough, tough story, and I'm imagining that when you were sent away from that orphanage, you thought maybe things would get better at the Florida Industrial School for Boys. It was a campus and from what we can hear kind of attractive.
KISER: Well it was actually beautiful. It was like driving onto a college campus. We drove in, there was manicured lawns, beautiful buildings. There was a swimming pool, a football field, a gymnasium. It had everything. I thought, well, I'm, you know, in heaven here. Little did I know that there was a monster hiding behind every blade of manicured grass.
YOUNG: Well, that sounds pretty extreme, but what we're hearing, and this is also now coming out of Florida, Florida officials, it was right out of Dickens. What were some of the things that you witnessed.
KISER: First of all, I guess the first thing I noticed, I was in one of the cottages, and men would come in at night, and boys would be taken out. Several times we walked into the bathroom, and we saw some of the men had the boys bent over the sink, and we knew what was going on there. I won't go into the details of that.
Then all of a sudden they would take boys, and some would never come back. And in one case there was a nine-year-old boy, I don't remember his name, he was taken out, and they - when the word got back to us, they said that the nine-year-old, when they took him out, was taken into the white house to beat him, that he had ran off.
And he was sent to ACI, the Appalachia Correctional Institution. Well, you don't send a nine-year-old to Appalachia Correctional Institution for running away. So we knew right then that the stories we were hearing about boys being killed and boys disappearing was probably true.
YOUNG: Did you actually witness a death?
KISER: Yes, I worked in the hospital, and on this one occasion, I had worked the day shift, went back to the cottage, and my cottage father told me to report back to the hospital, I had to work the evening shift. I went back to the hospital, there was a boy brought in probably around eight, nine, 10 years old. And he - his legs were just torn up.
And he was laying on the little - not a gurney but sort of a stainless steel table, and Nurse Womack(ph) told me to take his boots off. Well, I started taking his boot off to cut his pants off, and blood was coming out of his pants leg into the boot. And so I ran out into the hallway and started throwing up.
And she said you get your you know what back in here, and you do your job, young man. Well, we waited for the doctor, which never came, and so she told - another boy showed up, I don't remember who that was, and they had us carry the boy by the arms and the legs down the hallway into the main ward and put him in the bathtub.
And when they left, I stood there, the boy wasn't moving. And I started splashing cold water on him to try to get some of the blood off. And she came in and told me to sit out on the back deck, which I did, again waiting for the doctor. And then I guess about a half-hour later, the doctor still hadn't showed up, she came in and said you go down there and start cleaning up the emergency room there and clean up that blood off the floor.
I said what about that boy? She said there's nothing more we can do for that boy. So I knew he was dead right then.
YOUNG: That's Roger Kiser with, as we said, a disturbing description of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which was shut down in 2011, and now anthropologists are soon to begin exhuming bodies found buried on the campus, a move pushed by former students like Roger. His book is "The White House Boys," a tough conversation but a voice that wants to be heard. And we'll have more in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and welcome back to our conversation with Roger Kiser, and again a warning, it's a tough conversation. He was an inmate at eh now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. His book is called "The White House Boys: An American Tragedy," a graphic description of what he and other former students say was decades of torturous punishment and even murder of boys at the school.
Now some background: Initially Florida blocked a University of South Florida anthropologist from exhuming graves at the school. Last spring, the state attorney general petitioned the governor to reconsider. Governor Rick Scott and other lawmakers recently voted to allow the exhumation, and it will begin Labor Day weekend.
Of the many employees the now grown students accuse of torturing and killing boys, only one is alive. A class action suit was brought against Troy Tidwell, but a court found the statute of limitations had run out. That suit was thrown out. And after that an attempt was made to pass a bill in the Florida legislature giving compensation to the victims and their families, but that proposal never made it to a vote.
Again, this is very difficult to hear, but Roger, as you know, Troy Tidwell said that what happened to students like you was just spanking. You write very graphically about the white house, the building where you and others say these beatings occurred. You say you were brutally whipped, paddled.
KISER: And when that paddle came down on me, I thought my head would explode. I came off the bed, jumped up onto the end of the bed springs and jumped into the corner, and they just started beating the hell out of me with the leather strap. When they got done, I was so bloody that when I went into Dr. Curry's office, which was the psychiatrist, the secretary said who are you.
And I said I'm Roger Kiser. And she knew me well. She says oh my God, you go over to Mr. Hatten's office. So I walked into Mr. Hatten's office, and I knew I couldn't sit down because when they beat you, you were almost like hamburger. And when I turned around, I sort of mumbled, one day I'm going to come back here, and I'm going to tell what you people are doing here.
And I turned around. He pointed right into my face, and he says that's a good way to wake up dead tomorrow morning, sonny boy. I knew right then that they were killing boys.
YOUNG: Was this just a group of sadists? What - I mean what is your sense of, now from this distance, what is your sense of how this happened and how it was allowed to happen?
KISER: Well basically, at the time I didn't think it was sadistic or anything, that's just the way it was. And of course it probably wasn't as bad on me in the reform school as would have been for someone who was raised in a family. But I was already institutionalized. So I was used to that type of treatment.
I've only been able to describe it almost as a concentration camp, and you realize you have to be very careful. You don't see, hear or say anything. And if you do, they're going to get you, and they're liable to beat you to death, or you're liable to disappear in the middle of the night.
YOUNG: Look, we know that you finally got out of Dozier when you were 15, lived on the streets because you didn't want to go back to the orphanage, which was also a terrible place. When did you start trying to get the state to pay attention to Dozier?
KISER: I actually said a few things to some ministers and schoolteachers when I got out. But nobody would listen. Nobody would believe that. I probably started governors all the way from I think his name was Governor Askew, there's five or six governors. Never heard anything until I finally got a letter back from Jeb Bush.
And all they did was apologize to me, they didn't do anything. And then I guess probably a few years had passed. I started working on the book. I've been working on this now for 22 years. And I went into classmates.com, and it asked me, you know, what school I went to up at Spring Park Elementary. And then it said what high school. Well, I didn't go to high school, only for two weeks at Lanyon here in Jacksonville.
So I said what the heck, I put down Florida Industrial School for Boys at Marianna. And about three or four days later, I went back in, and there was about five or six guys that put in the same thing who had been there. So I started talking with them, and this is when everything started to form.
And Robert Straley, which is another White House Boy, a friend of mine, contacted me, and that's when we started forming The White House Boys.
YOUNG: Well, and pushed to have Dozier looked at. The state finally agreed to send investigators in. The press found out about these unmarked graves that were on the campus, and the ball starts rolling to where we are today. Investigators found records indicating how people died, 96 people died, all young people except for two adults, disease, trauma, drowning. Seven young boys died trying to escape. One 16-year-old was shot.
Now we have anthropologists from the University of South Florida going to exhume the bodies. What do you hope that they find?
KISER: Well, I know what they're going to find. They're going to find a heck of a lot more bodies than what they think are up there. They're going to find a couple hundred bodies. They're going to find them in the dump. Some bodies they'll never find.
YOUNG: How validating has this been for you?
KISER: I was before the Senate when they made the vote with the governor, and I suppose I went a little numb when they voted, and I knew that the truth was finally going to come out. But what meant a lot to me was we received - after they voted, we received a standing ovation. The policemen stood up, the military people stood up, everybody stood up and clapped.
And it almost brought me to tears because through the years, we have been called nothing but a bunch of liars, a bunch of former juvenile delinquents who were after nothing but money, to put money in our pocket or to sell books. We were called by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nothing but a bunch of old soldiers who couldn't get their war stories straight.
So that's what meant a lot to me. That was the vindication I got.
YOUNG: Roger Kiser, again his book is "The White House Boys: An American Tragedy." He lived at the Dozier School for boys from the age of 12 to 15, and the state of Florida is getting ready to exhume the bodies of boys who disappeared during their time there. Roger, are you going to go? Are you going to be there?
KISER: Well, I think the University of South Florida wants to try to keep themselves separate, and I think they should, you know, be independent from us or the state.
KISER: So that things are done legitimately. We are planning possibly to go up to Marianna before they start exhuming next week and possibly have some sort of a service for the boys because they're going to, in a sense, I guess, see light for the first time in a long time.
YOUNG: And a proper burial.
YOUNG: Roger, thank you.
KISER: Well, I appreciate the time to be on, thank you.
YOUNG: And again the state of Florida has commissioned researchers at the University of South Florida to exhume the bodies. They'll be led by anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who led the investigating team that previously found causes of death for boys ranging from drowning to infectious disease. We'll continue to follow this story for you and see what they find this time around.
But if you live in Florida, we would love to hear from you. Do you think your state should revisit compensation for the boys and their families? Let us know at hereandnow.org.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Here are some other stories we are following today. Syrian rebels say hundreds are dead, including women and children, after the government allegedly used chemical weapons in a massive attack outside Damascus. Also an Egyptian court has ordered the release of Hosni Mubarak, the former leader. It's not clear if that order will be appealed.
And 70 percent of American workers have seen their wages stagnate or even decline for the past decade. Economists can't agree on how to fix the problem. Those and other stories coming up later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And tomorrow here on HERE AND NOW, gay service members who get married will soon receive the same benefits as their straight colleagues. We'll speak with a 34-year-old Air Force major who is now planning his wedding.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know, when I was in college, I gave a speech on why I thought don't ask, don't tell should be repealed. It kind of seemed like a pipe dream at the time. Then obviously now within two years, that's gone. I can get married and have the federal government recognize it. I'm very hopeful and happy that things are going so quickly.
HOBSON: We will have that full conversation tomorrow on HERE AND NOW. The latest news is next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.