Exhumations Begin At Now-Closed Florida Reform School

Researchers have begun exhuming remains from unmarked graves at a now-closed Florida reform school. Former residents of the school say brutal beatings were routine, and they believe many boys died as a result. At least 50 grave sites have been identified, and it is believed that there may be many more. Several families of boys who died there are demanding answers.

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On Florida's panhandle, a research team is working to unearth a graveyard's tragic secrets. It's at the Dozier School for Boys, a state-run reform school that closed two years ago after more than a century in operation. Dozier has become notorious for the beatings and physical abuse residents say they received there.

From Mariana, Florida, NPR's Greg Allen reports that researchers hope to determine how many boys are buried there in unmarked graves and how they died.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In a wooded area about a mile from the main buildings at the Dozier school, there's a clearing with 31 crosses. Nearby today, researchers using a front loader were restoring the soil to two graves excavated this weekend.

MEREDITH TISE: Both of the remains were oriented east to west, so really consistent. And they were really far against the tree line as well, so...

ALLEN: Meredith Tise is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of South Florida. She's part of the team that's been working here since last year, first to locate the unmarked graves and now to exhume and identify the remains.

TISE: You can see here kind of the outline of where the burial was but also that's the outline of the casket as well.

ALLEN: It's a six-by-nine-foot grave carved out of the Florida red clay. The story of what's led to these exhumations begins several years ago, when a group of former residents of the school - many now in their 60s and 70s - formed a group they call the White House Boys. They took their name from a small building on the school grounds where they say they received severe beatings. Some of the men believe boys died at the school as a result. Florida law enforcement authorities investigated the claims by the White House Boys but said they found no evidence of wrongdoing at the school. And they said they believed it was too late to identify who's in the graves and how they died.

That attracted Erin Kimmerle's attention. She's a forensic anthropologist who's worked with human rights groups identifying remains in the Balkans and Latin America. She's now using those same techniques at the Dozier school. Kimmerle says her team worked slowly this weekend, doing all the work by hand. They recovered the remains of two boys who she says appear to have been 10 to 13 years old when they died. Both were buried in coffins.

ERIN KIMMERLE: The first one, which was very shallow but had very elaborate sort of hardware, and the second one did not have any hardware handles and was quite a bit deeper.

ALLEN: The remains will be taken back to the university in Tampa where researchers will build a profile and use DNA analysis to try to identify who these boys were. Although school administrators placed 31 crosses here, they don't mark individual graves. Many more boys may be buried here. Using ground penetrating radar, the research team has identified what appear to be 50 burial shafts. Kimmerle says families of boys who died at the school want their loved ones' remains returned to them.

KIMMERLE: Several families have come to us by reading about it. So, hey, I saw this on the paper, and my uncle is there. Can you help? And they're all supportive of the work and want it done as well.

ALLEN: After first resisting, state officials gave Kimmerle and her team permission to do the exhumations. But locally, not everyone is happy with the work going on here.

After breakfast at Bobbie's Waffle Iron and Grill in Marianna, Vickie Husted said personally she has no problem with the exhumations. She's critical of some of the stories told by the White House Boys though, saying back in the '50s and '60s, corporal punishment - some of it severe - wasn't uncommon.

VICKIE HUSTED: That was a different time, a different era. You know, there's nothing we can do about it now. We might (unintelligible). But as far as anything else, there's nothing we can do about that. We can't take them back.

ALLEN: The research team from the University of South Florida plans to return and finish the exhumations over the winter. Then they'll try to match the remains found with the families that have provided DNA. But this could be just the beginning. Talking to families and former workers at the school, researchers believe there may be another burial ground and more unmarked graves yet to be discovered. Greg Allen, NPR News, Marianna, Florida.

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