Friday, May 22, 2009

FL: Former reform school student, administrator face off

'I stand here saying he hurt me,' man says of beatings 50 years ago
By Jim Schoettler
Story updated at 6:28 AM on Friday, May. 22, 2009

MARIANNA – Bryant Middleton spent four hours Thursday sitting within arms reach of a frail elderly man he accuses of tormenting him nearly 50 years ago.

Their eyes never met, Middleton said. They exchanged no words.

And when it was over, Middleton said he bore no animosity toward Troy Tidwell. He said he also felt no forgiveness for the man he accuses of repeatedly beating him at a reform school designed to help troubled teens.

Middleton is one of about 200 former students of the Florida Industrial School for Boys who are involved in a class-action lawsuit against four state agencies and Tidwell. The students, including several from the Jacksonville area, said they were abused mostly in the 1950s and '60s in the school west of Tallahassee.

The two men faced off Thursday during a deposition of Tidwell, who is among several school administrators identified by former students as having beaten them with a strap or paddle for violating school rules.

The corporal punishment occurred in a building known as the White House and the plaintiffs are known as the White House Boys. A number of their stories have appeared in the Times-Union in a continuing series about the school, which housed thousands of youths.

Middleton, of Fort Walton Beach, was about 13 when he spent nearly a year at the school about 1960. He said he was beaten six separate times in the White House, and Tidwell was among his tormentors.

Middleton, 64, said he didn’t recognize Tidwell sitting at the end of a table filled with lawyers for both sides. He said Tidwell admitted to spanking students, as he did in a newspaper interview last year, but also insisted he didn’t injure anyone.

“For him to say he never hurt anybody, I stand here saying he hurt me,” Bryant said after the proceedings.

Tidwell, 85, of Marianna, declined to comment as he walked gingerly to an awaiting car. His attorney, H. Matthew Fuqua, said he felt Tidwell “did fine.” The deposition will resume at an undisclosed date.

Middleton’s role was to consult with his attorneys as they questioned Tidwell. It was the most significant event in the case since it was filed in Pinellas County in December.

The allegations of abuse are part of a criminal investigation being conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE last week concluded that there was no evidence of abuse among 29 students whose bodies the agency said are in unmarked graves in a school cemetery.

The punishment in the White House was administered after students were forced to lie on a filthy cot, grab onto a headboard and bite into a pillow. Middleton said the most lashes he remembered receiving before passing out was 57. He said facing Tidwell Thursday brought back bad memories of the man and the school.

“I honestly believe in my heart he thinks he was doing what the state of Florida told him to do,” Middleton said. “It’s not my place to forgive him.”

Middleton eventually joined the Army and spent 22 years in the service before retiring. He also married and has four children.

He said he never forgot being punished at the reform school and hopes the civil case will help him find some closure. He also advocates the state forming a blue-ribbon committee to study current conditions at state-run reform schools.

“I hope people stop denying and lying about what happened at Marianna,” Middleton said. “It would do all of us good.”

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