Two bills that would bring some measure of relief to the victims of the closed Arthur G. Dozier reform school outside the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna are moving through the Legislature this session.
If passed, it will mark a major step forward in closing a shameful chapter in Florida history. Lawmakers should give their full support to the efforts by state Rep. Ed Narain and state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, both Tampa Democrats. The bills would direct $1.5 million for the reburial of bodies found in shallow graves on the Dozier site, and for a memorial to the victims of the abuses alleged by former students. The bills also direct the state to locate the relatives of children buried on the site by the end of 2017 and offer as much as $7,500 toward a proper burial.
For years the families have battled the state to learn more about what happened to the children who were sent to the school and never returned. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a state attorney declined to bring criminal charges, and Gov. Rick Scott has refused calls to appoint an independent law enforcement agency to reopen a criminal investigation.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner fought efforts by University of South Florida researchers to perform a comprehensive analysis of the site to determine how many bodies were buried there. Fortunately, he lost that battle and USF researchers were able to the unearth the remains of 51 bodies, far more than the state counted in a previous investigation.
Seven sets of remains have been identified through DNA, and another 14 might also be identified. Finding relatives after so many years may be difficult in some cases, but at least the state will be acting responsibly in trying to find them, rather than pretending the abuses didn’t occur.
Dozier opened in 1900 and enrollment peaked at about 500 in the 1960s. It closed in 2011. Former students came forward about seven years ago with claims they were brutally beaten and sexually abused decades ago. The survivors, some sent there for minor offenses like truancy or running away from home, told stories about boys being killed while attempting to escape, and others dying within months of arriving. The graves had no markers and the causes of death are not recorded.
State officials have also begun to publicly apologize to the victims and their families, something long overdue. At a Florida Cabinet meeting last week, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he was sorry for the what the boys had endured while wards of the state, and that a fitting memorial is needed. Attorney General Pam Bondi applauded the survivors for having the courage to come forward after all of these years.
The state must now decide what to do with the entire 1,400-acre property, which sites behind a chain-link fence. Putnam is right that it shouldn’t sit untended to “breed more rumors and mythology.”
But that’s a simpler task than the one Dozier victims and USF researchers undertook to get the answers to the questions the state didn’t want unearthed at the Dozier reform school.