TAMPA — Researchers from the University of South Florida said this morning they have exhumed the remains of 55 boys who died at a scandalized state-run reform school in the Panhandle town of Marianna.
That's 24 more than the 31 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found during a cursory investigation in 2009 on orders from then-Gov. Charlie Crist. FDLE relied on incomplete school records and did not use ground-penetrating radar to map the cemetery.
The number even exceeds USF's earlier prediction of 49, which was based on ground-penetrating radar.
Among the unidentified remains — many of which appear to have been buried unceremoniously, somewhat haphazardly and at varying depths — anthropologists found artifacts they hope to date and compare to school records to help determine the identities of the boys buried.
They found belt buckles, zippers, coffin hardware, shirt buttons, bottles of embalming fluid and a child's marble. They hope DNA from the families of those known to have died at the school will also shed light on the identities of the remains. USF has collected DNA from about a dozen families and hope to track down more relatives of the dead.
The team, led by USF associate professor Erin Kimmerle, who has called the project a "humanitarian effort," began work in early 2012. Excavation, which is tedious, didn't begin until August, after the university cleared several political hurdles and won approval from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet.
The state closed the facility in June 2011 after a century-long cycle of scandal and short-lived reform. The school, 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was founded in 1900 and was once the largest of its kind in the nation. It has been known as the Florida Industrial School for Boys, the Florida School for Boys and the Dozier School for Boys. Over the years, kids were locked in irons, beaten with a leather strap in a building called the White House, locked in isolation for as long as three weeks and hog-tied. The school has been subject to lawsuits and scrutiny, but no one has been able to answer the questions about the cemetery, which is now surrounded by pines on an abandoned part of campus.
In October 2008, five former wards went public with stories of extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards, and some recalled stories of their fellow wards disappearing. The state launched an investigation into the allegations, and into the small cemetery, but investigators felt ground penetrating radar wouldn't be helpful because of the heavy woods in the area.
However, USF cleared woods surrounding the marked cemetery and found more burials among the trees. In one case, a tree was growing atop a burial.
More than 500 men have come forward with similar stories of being abused by staff at the school, according to a lawyer with Masterson & Hoag, the St. Petersburg firm representing the men.