At a Florida reform school, exhuming the victims–and the truth

Updated
White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, December 10, 2012.
White metal crosses mark graves at the cemetery of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, December 10, 2012.
Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters

The graves of the children buried on the grounds of the old Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in rural north Florida don’t have headstones. Many of the remains lie under white metal crosses, some in shallow graves or with no markers at all. There’s little official documentation detailing how many of them died or where on the grounds they’re buried.

Researchers and state officials are aware of about 100 graves. But there’s no telling how many others might be scattered about the place, once the country’s largest reform school. For more than a century the school, in Marianna in the Florida panhandle, housed many of the state’s troubled youths–and by many accounts, was a place of abuse that culminated in deaths that remain mysterious and uncounted.

“For so long we couldn’t get anyone to believe us about what had gone on there,” Robert Straley, 66, a former Dozier student, told msnbc.  ”They literally beat your clothes into your skin. They beat you bloody. They were doing this to 11- and 12-year-old boys.”

Straley, other former students, and those who support them are closer to literally unearthing the buried skeletons of  this notorious school. On Tuesday morning, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet unanimously voted to issue permits to researchers at the University of South Florida to begin exhuming remains from nearly 100 unmarked graves at the school. USF researchers hope to identify the bodies.

“This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida and an outspoken supporter of the USF project, which began last year, said in a statement after the decision was announced. “Nothing can bring these boys back, but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”

The school was officially closed two years ago for budgetary reasons, just months before a scathing Department of Justice report that outlined a pattern of “systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”

In 2012, USF researchers and forensic anthropologists descended upon the 1,400-acre school grounds armed with radar equipment and horrifying tales from former students and dead boys’ families. What they found was at once promising but also confounding. Using school records, family correspondence and historical records, researchers identified at least 98 deaths at the school between 1913 and 1960. Much of what they found was in an area on the North Side of the campus, called Boot Hill, which for decades during the segregation era served as the “colored” side of the school. Researchers found more than 50 unidentified grave shafts there; the state had earlier said there were only 31 bodies interred there.

The USF team hit a snag last year when the state hoped to sell the property. After the sale was halted by a court, researchers were given more time to continue their project. Last month the project was again stalled after a USF request to the Department of State to exhume remains (to  identify them and make the findings available to relatives) was denied. Secretary of State Ken Detzner said the Department of State did not have the authority to grant the request.

But Tuesday’s vote by Gov. Scott and his cabinet clears the way for exhumations to begin later this month, according to Sen. Nelson’s office. The USF research team, led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, will try to match DNA samples taken from the living relatives of boys buried at the school, the last of whom was buried there about 60 years ago.

“From the beginning, I have supported efforts at the Dozier School for Boys in order to provide family members who lost loved ones with closure,” State Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. “We’re not exactly sure what happened there, but we know it wasn’t good,” Bondi later told the News Service of Florida. “We have to look at our history… We have to go back, we know there are unmarked graves currently on that property that deserve a proper burial. It’s the right thing to do.”

In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate “the horrible plight suffered by children who attended the Dozier School for Boys.” The resulting investigation found no evidence of criminality, but did not have evidence to counter the tales of brutality offered by former students. In interviews with approximately 100 former students, their family members and staff, FDLE investigators found allegations of spankings so severe that boys could not walk away afterwards. One had to have pieces of underwear that had been beaten into his buttocks surgically removed, while others recounted blisters and bleeding. Others said they were sexually and emotionally abused.

“With the passage of over fifty years, no tangible physical evidence was found to either support or refute the allegations of physical or sexual abuse,” the report, delivered to the State Attorney’s Office in January 2010, concluded.

In recent years those former students of the school and their families have become more vocal about abuse and neglect at the school, founded as the Florida State Reform School and later the Florida Industrial School for Boys. It was the state’s first reform school.

Survivors recalled beatings in the infamous “White House,” a little white structure on the grounds. They recount being told to lie face down on a slab and being whipped with wooden paddles and leather straps.

Like the rest of the campus, the White House was segregated, with one room for blacks and one for whites, according to state reports.

“It affected everything about my life and so I’m back here trying to get some closure and perhaps get some type of justice that is due me, overdue, all of us. It’s not just about me, it’s about all of us, black and white boys, all of us,” John Bonner, a student who lived at Dozier from 1967 to 1969, told First Coast News. Bonner said guards at the school beat him like an animal. “We have caught pure hell and we coming back to try to get some closure within ourselves because I’m tormented after all these years and just all of a sudden, just by chance, God is making a way for us to get some form of justice within ourselves, having people support us and we ask other people to support us and help us.”

Former students like Bonner have formed various groups. Bonner is part of a group called the “Black Boys at Dozier Reform School.” All of the remains have so far been found on the black side of the campus. And of the records found, many of the dead were black. Marianna, where the school is located, happens to also be the site of one of the most gruesome documented lynchings in American history. In 1934, a lynch mob of whites tortured and murdered Claude Neal, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Neal’s body was then taken to the alleged victim’s family home where it was further mutilated before being hung at the Marianna courthouse.

“Back in the 1900s to the 1930s,  a white boy’s life wasn’t worth much. Imagine how much a black boy’s life was worth back then,” said Straley, a founder of another group of former students, “The White House Boys,” which takes its name from that little house where so many say they were brutalized. “You couldn’t even talk to a black boy without getting a beating.”

Straley recalled being flogged numerous times and beaten with a leather whip with a leather handle “as heavy as a baseball bat.”

Tuesday’s vote was both the beginning and the end of a chapter in the tragic tale, Straley said.

“In a way it is a beginning because the truth now will be found out and there will be a real investigation by people who know how to do it and are qualified to handle human remains,” he said. For five years, he said, he and just a few other former students have criss-crossed the state corralling former peers and pushing authorities to dive deeper into the wrongs committed in Marianna.

“Nobody in the town wanted to talk about what happened there,” Straley said. “People were tired of getting a black eye over and over again from what they said was alleged abuse. The abuse wasn’t alleged at all. How much more evidence do you need? How many more witnesses do you want?

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At a Florida reform school, exhuming the victims--and the truth

Updated