Cabinet likely to OK USF's probe of school graves
TAMPA - After a judge and the secretary of state stymied their efforts, University of South Florida researchers are expected to finally receive permission from the Florida Cabinet to exhume bodies from a burial site at a notorious former reform school in the Panhandle.
The Cabinet, acting in its capacity as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, is scheduled to vote Tuesday in Tallahassee on a joint land-use agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection to permit the excavation of human remains at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
USF officials credited Attorney General Pam Bondi with developing the latest strategy to continue an investigation into children buried in unmarked graves at the reform school.
While Gov. Rick Scott has taken no stand on the issue of USF's work, the other three Cabinet members have supported an expanded investigation.
Researchers led by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle received permission in 2011 to use ground-penetrating radar and surface excavation for a field survey of a cemetery site known as Boot Hill on the school grounds. They found there were more bodies there than officially accounted for, and that a series of crosses that purportedly marked the graves did not match the burial pattern. They noted that some of the makeshift graves were adjacent to a garbage dump, while others were in danger of being destroyed by foliage.
USF applied to a circuit court judge to expand the investigation and remove remains from the site, but was denied. The university then went to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who declined to grant the necessary permit, saying he did not have the authority to do so.
With the permission of the Cabinet panel, which oversees state lands, the researchers could identify remains and allow families to pursue burial "in a proper and respectful manner," according to USF. Family members have contributed DNA with the hopes of identifying relatives, and the research could eventually lead to an investigation into how the boys at the site died.
"Attorney General Bondi remains supportive of the effort to identify and remove human remains at Dozier in an effort to return those remains to their families," said Jenn Meale, Bondi's communications director.
A Cabinet vote could thrust Scott into the debate over the investigation at the school. Detzner is a Scott appointee. The governor has on several occasions expressed support and sympathy to family members of boys buried in Marianna, but has declined to directly address an expanded investigation.
Critics, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, slammed the governor for what he considered indifference. When Detzner declined to issue the permit, Nelson decried the "ridiculous stance" the state had taken, and called it "a dodge."
"This is all being run by the governor," Nelson said after Detzner's action this month. "He controls the Department of State. If they wanted to do it, that's all the governor would have to say."
The Florida Cabinet consists of Scott, Bondi, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Unlike most states, the Cabinet is not an advisory board; each officer is elected independently and shares decision-making power with the governor.
The Cabinet can act as any of 12 individual boards and commissions with statewide authority.
Putnam has been outspoken about the Dozier case and his office released a statement Wednesday: "I am disappointed that this process continues to be delayed and stonewalled. The state should be facilitating the search for the truth, not serve as the biggest impediment to that truth. These families deserve better than how they've been treated."
A statement from Atwater's office read, "CFO Atwater wants the relatives of those buried at the Dozier School for Boys to have the answers and closure they deserve, and he believes USF can help ensure that happens in a way that is responsible and respectful to all of the families involved."