Florida allows exhumation at boys reform school

White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida
White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.

Declaring that “there is no shame in searching for the truth,” Florida’s Cabinet agreed this week to permit bodies to be exhumed at an infamous former boys reform school, to identify dozens of children buried and forgotten in woodlands decades ago.

The institution, the Dozier School for Boys, a sprawling juvenile lock-up near Marianna in the state’s Panhandle, was closed in 2011 after years of allegations it tortured boys in its care.

A small group of former prisoners applauded as Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet unanimously approved a proposal to let a University of South Florida forensic anthropology team conduct a dig at an area called “boot hill.”

Dozens of suspected grave sites, long unmarked, now have plastic white tubing in the form of crosses in the area — although no one knows where the bodies were buried or how many Dozier boys died there between 1914 and 1973.

Ground-penetrating radar has indicated that about 50 bodies may lie beneath the heavily forested hillside. Most of the dead are thought to be black youths, whose families were never told how or why they died.

Johnny Gaddy, a former Dozier student who attended the Cabinet meeting, said families were told “you’d better forget it” when they asked about the disappearances.

“In a state as old as Florida is, we’re going to have chapters in our history that we’re more proud of than others,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a cabinet member, said of the decision. “There is no shame in searching for the truth. The families of the victims, who want closure, who want answers, deserve those things.”

There is no prospect of prosecuting anyone for the deaths of the boys, but Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “All these kids, they deserve proper burials, and that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Researchers and students at the University of South Florida in Tampa found records of 98 deaths of boys between ages 6 and 18, plus two adult staff members at the school between 1914 and 1973.

The research, which included an examination of state death records, revealed missing, conflicting and “sloppy” record-keeping about the people buried at Dozier and how they died.

The most common causes of death were disease, fire, physical trauma and drowning. Seven boys died during escape attempts — including one 16-year-old who suffered gunshot wounds to the chest — and 20 died within the first three months of arrival, the report said.

USF professor Erin Kimmerle said her anthropology team can begin work soon in Jackson County. If bones are recovered, identification efforts will involve DNA matching with living relatives of the boys.

Kimmerle and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson visited the site last spring. Nelson has been pushing for exhumation of the burial grounds for several months.

“This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation,” Nelson said in a statement. “Nothing can bring these boys back but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”

A Jackson County circuit judge last May rejected Bondi’s request for the local medical examiner to exhume the bodies. Secretary of State Ken Detzner last month also declined to issue permits for the search.

Tuesday’s decision gives USF a one-year permit to conduct the exhumation.

Nelson is backing a $3 million proposal for a U.S. Department of Justice grant for forensic research at the site.

State Rep. Alan Williams, chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus, applauded the governor and Cabinet’s decision.

“I am hopeful that the results of the research will provide some degree of comfort and closure to the families who have lost loved ones,” said Williams. “This decision is a victory for the families who have long fought to exhume remains at the Dozier School for Boys.”


News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Bloomberg launches $50 million anti-gun violence effort

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg plans to spend $50 million on a grassroots anti-gun violence network to challenge the National Rifle Association.

Local

East Village woman fights off rape attempt from…

An East Village woman fought off an attempted rapist that she woke to find standing on her bed over the weekend, police said.

International

Nearly 300 missing after South Korean ferry capsizes

Almost 300 people were missing after a ferry capsized off South Korea Wednesday, in what could be the country's biggest maritime disaster in over 20 years.

Local

Police look for man suspected of threatening Muslim…

Police seek man suspected of calling a teen Muslim girl a "terrorist" and spitting on her multiple times while on a Queens bus.

The Word

Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg are engaged

If Donnie Wahlberg wants to get vaccinated against anything, he should do it soon: he and Jenny McCarthy are engaged, she just announced on "The View."

Television

TV watch list, Wednesday, April 16: 'The Americans,'…

'The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth face "painful turns" in their missions. Maybe next week they'll have a nice easy mission with no moral ambiguity? Probably…

Movies

Curtain raiser: The Tribeca Film Festival arrives this…

The Tribeca Film Festival begins its two-week run in Lower Manhattan on Thursday, boasting dozens and dozens of films of all stripes.

Movies

Review: 'Bears' is a cute Disney doc about…

Disney's latest nature doc, "Bears," doesn't completely shy away from the fact that its subjects would devour you (or eachother) if they had the chance.

NHL

Islanders back to rebuilding mode after disappointing season

One season after qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, the Islanders finished 2013-14 with a 34-37-11 record.

NFL

Jets confident despite Chris Johnson leaving with no…

Jets fans clamored for a playmaker on offense all offseason. It looked like they were going to land that player on Tuesday when Chris Johnson…

NBA

Knicks, Nets rivalry never materialized despite national attention

When the NBA schedule was released, the league anticipated an intense rivalry between the Nets and Knicks with all four games slated for national TV.

NBA

NBA Power Rankings: Are the Spurs frauds? Could…

NBA Power Rankings: Are the Spurs frauds? Could the Mavericks surprise?

Wellbeing

Could a facelift give you the edge at…

It's not just women lining up for procedures.

Home

Steal home decorating tips from Nattystyle blogger Natalie…

Despite the towering ceilings and enviable exposed brick, it’s easy to see how Natalie Decleve’s apartment could be considered a challenge. Perched above the streets…

Home

How to plant a garden in the city

Small on space but big on gardening? You can still have that welcoming oasis of fresh air with an urban garden. Peter Smith, owner of…

Style

Personalize your massage at a private practice

CityTouch customizes spa treatments to meet client's needs.