Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet unanimously agreed Tuesday to allow scientists to continue work at a closed reform school in Florida’s Panhandle, where many former students say the bodies of dozens of children may lie buried.
The move by Scott and the Cabinet cleared a hurdle created earlier in the year, when Secretary of State Ken Detzner told University of South Florida researchers that his office didn’t have the authority to approve the exhumation of human remains at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
USF researchers have identified 50 possible graves in an area dubbed Boot Hill.
The rudimentary cemetery is in the black section of what had been a segregated reform school for decades after it opened in 1900. Researchers also want to locate another graveyard where white boys supposedly were buried.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the tales of beatings, sexual abuse and neglect at the Dozier school represent a dark chapter of Florida history that deserves to be examined. But Putnam also said that advancing the research shouldn’t be seen as a slap to the rural community of Marianna, 60 miles west of Tallahassee.
“There is no shame in searching for the truth,” said Putnam, an early advocate for continuing the work at Dozier.
Several former students were in the audience Tuesday, including Leo Collier, 84, who is believed to be the oldest former resident of the school, which closed in 2011.
Collier said he was sent to Dozier at age 12 for skipping school. “All I did was farm work, I’d do all the dirty work. If I didn’t work, they’d whup me,” said Collier, who now lives in Polk County. “They’d bust my hide.”
Another man, 68-year-old Don Stratton, a former truck driver from Gibsonton, said he ran away from home and was “dragged out of the woods and put in Sarasota County jail.”
After six months behind bars, the 13-year-old Stratton was sent to Dozier for three years. Brutal beatings were administered in a shed called the White House, where many youngsters died, he said.
“The boys they murdered were put in the ground, not even in boxes,” Stratton said. “You wouldn’t even bury your dog like that.”
Stratton said he saw a 9-year-old orphan named Jimmie enter the White House and a staff member leave 30 minutes later with his white uniform covered in blood. Later, Stratton said, a vehicle pulled up to the White House and removed Jimmie’s body.
“What they did with him, we don’t know,” Stratton said. “Buried him in the woods up there.”
Orphans, Stratton said, were easy prey.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, though, said some families also are coming forward, wanting to know more about the fate of brothers, nephews and cousins sent to the school years ago.
Looking at Collier, who sat in the front row at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Bondi said, “He deserves to have some closure.”
Former Gov. Charlie Crist ordered a state investigation into claims of abuse, torture and deaths at Dozier. But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement couldn’t find enough evidence to support the allegations and concluded there were no unaccounted-for graves at the school.
USF forensic anthropologists and researchers, however, have found 49 gravesites in a cemetery marked by 31 crosses. These sites, they added, may include more than one body.
The Legislature last spring set aside $190,000 to assist USF scientists with their work. DNA sampling of family members also is being conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, to assist with the identity of bodies if they’re found.
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys was a reform school operated by the state from 1900 until 2011. Reports of beatings and abuse endured for decades but gained new attention with former students coming forward with tales of deaths and unmarked graves.
University of South Florida researchers have found evidence that may support the claims. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are giving them authority to move ahead with their work.