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Abuse was reform school's lesson, family says

  • Story Highlights
  • "Edward" told family he was physically, sexually abused at reform school
  • Family didn't believe his stories until investigation of Florida School for Boys
  • Florida Department of Law Enforcement looking into allegations
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By Rich Phillips
CNN Senior Producer
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"Edward," "Elizabeth" and "Chris" are pseudonyms. CNN agreed to change the names to protect the family's privacy. Look for their story this weekend on CNN.

Former residents of the Florida School for Boys say beatings took place in building called "the white house."

Mother and son clutch hands, describing abuse by a man who said he attended a Florida reform school.

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- "Elizabeth" and "Chris" have never been to Marianna, Florida. But Marianna came to them -- and stayed.

They say they lived with a man whose tortured past brought them a lifetime of pain. It goes back 50 years, to a man CNN is calling "Edward," who claimed to his family that he attended a Florida reform school in Marianna in the early 1960's.

Edward told his wife and son that he was regularly beaten and sexually abused and once was ordered by guards to shoot at classmates at the school.

They say the school turned Edward into an angry, violent, alcoholic man who beat them in the same way that he was beaten as a child at the school.

"We were the ripple ... effect of their abuse on my husband, his abuse on us," Elizabeth said, her eyes brimming with tears.

"If they hadn't done to him what they did, he never would have done what he did to me, which shaped my whole life," she said.

"The way he felt so unloved, like he had been thrown away, the anger, the hurt all the time, the drinking," she explained. "The abuse that we went through."

"I'd like the people that did it to pay for it," Chris said. "To be honest, I'd like to do it myself."

Through the years, they never believed Edward's story, but recent news reports that detailed claims of abuse at the reform school have made it easier, they say, to stop blaming themselves.

"I just kind of wrote it off as, he was looking for sympathy from me, for what he had done, and tried to explain it away to me so I wouldn't be mad," Elizabeth said.

In December, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation into recent allegations that more than 30 crosses on the school grounds might mark the remains of boys killed at the school during the 1950s and '60s.

Former students, now in their 60s, have alleged that they were beaten and sexually abused. Some of their classmates suddenly disappeared, they said.

Many of the victims believe that those missing students are buried under more than 30 white crosses on the reform school property. The state investigation is partly to determine who might be buried here.

Elizabeth and Chris are part of the cycle of pain that may turn out to be the reform school's legacy.

Elizabeth met Edward shortly after he left the Florida School for Boys. He was 15 then, still a bit of a rebel.

"He wore the leather coat ... and we just kind of clicked," Elizabeth said. "He always seemed to be sad, and I just thought I could help him."

After they married -- she was 20 and Edward 22 -- the physical abuse began. He had a temper, she said, and one day he beat her and kicked her in the face. That's when Elizabeth heard her first story about the Florida School for Boys.

Her husband told her about a time when a friend had to pluck out fabric from his underwear after it became embedded in his skin during a beating, she said.

CNN has spoken to five men who attended the Florida School for Boys, and all of them tell similar stories of school administrators forcing the boys to lay face-down on the bed as they swung a long leather strap down upon the boys.

Four men are part of a survivors' organization known as the White House Boys. They are named after the small white cement building on the property where, they claim, the beatings took place.

Chris says that discovering what happened at the school explained a lot but didn't excuse it.

"When I was reading the stories on the Web site, the way that they used to beat them kids, [it's] what he used to do to me," Chris recalled.

"He'd make me lay face-down on the bed and grab the head of the bed, and if I'd move, he'd start over again," he said.

Chris said his father beat him seven or eight times like this. He was 12 years old when the beatings started.

"I don't see how he would have done this to his child after it was done to him," Chris said. "And I've hated him for many years for it."

Edward died in 1983. His family says he drank himself to death. With months to live, Chris says, his father would sometimes wake him in the middle of the night. He says he knew his dad was drinking, but one night, his father told him he was forced by school administrators to fire a gun at other boys.

"They made him line up outside of a fence and said that when they turn the lights on, to shoot whoever was at the fence," Chris said. "When they turned the lights on, there was some black kids trying to get out of the fence, and they gave my dad a .22 rifle."

Chris said his father told him he shot one of the boys in the face.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the lead agency investigating what happened at the school. The agency will not comment on the story Edward told his son.

State officials won't confirm that Edward even attended the Florida School for Boys, citing the ongoing inquiry. Through a spokesman, Florida Secretary of Juvenile Justice Frank Peterman released this statement:

"Our hearts go out to these men for the alleged incidents they claim to have endured, and we fully support the FDLE investigation into this matter. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further until the investigation has been completed."

But no investigation will make their lives whole again, Elizabeth and Chris say. Marianna changed Edward, and Edward changed them.

"It's shaped my whole life from the time I was 20 years old, and I'm 60 now, so it's shaped how I feel about everything," Elizabeth said.

Chris said he can't get close to anyone but his mom. He admits that, like his father, he has struggled with alcohol and bouts of nearly uncontrollable anger.

"I carry rage around me all the time. I try not to go anywhere, 'cause any time I go anywhere, I try not to tear somebody's head off. ... I'm so angry all the time," he said.

"I can't deal with people very well," he acknowledged.

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