MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. In a small town on Florida's Panhandle, researchers are working to unravel a mystery. It involves the Dozier School for Boys, a notorious state-run institution that closed last year after more than a century. Former residents of the school say they were subjected to physical abuse, including severe beatings, and that some boys died as a result. State investigators examined the allegations last year, but declined to bring charges. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, a team from the University of South Florida is using science to determine how many boys are buried there and, if possible, who they were.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: They're called the White House Boys, a group of men, more than 300, who all have one thing in common: they were sent as boys to the state-run reform school in Marianna, Florida. Over the last decade, they joined together and began telling their stories of abuse and terrible beatings administered in a small building on the school's grounds, a building known as the White House.
JERRY COOPER: You didn't know when it was coming. These were not spankings. These were beatings, brutal beatings.
ALLEN: Jerry Cooper is 67 now. He was 16 years old in 1961 when he was sent to what at the time was called the Florida School for Boys. He'd been running away from home and hitchhiking when he was picked by an AWOL Marine driving a stolen car. A country judge charged him with car theft and sent him to the school. Some of the kids like him were charged with crimes. Cooper says others were there for running away from home or because they didn't have families.
COOPER: We had many, many boys that was there for smoking in school that were incorrigible. We weren't bad kids. We might needed help in some respect. But that wasn't the place to find it. I'll tell you that right now.
ALLEN: Over the years, the Dozier School for Boys had several names. It opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School on 1,400 acres west of Tallahassee. Throughout its history, the school was known for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment. Over the years, succession of reports and commissions called for reforms, but little changed. Cooper says he did his best to stay out of trouble. But after several weeks, he learned about the beatings firsthand. School staff got him out of bed at 2 a.m. one morning and took him to the White House where he says they threw him on a bed, tied his feet and began beating him with a leather strap.
COOPER: The first blow lifted me a foot and a half off that bed. And every time that strap would come down, you could hear the shuffle on the concrete because their shoes would slide and, you know, you could hear the shoosh, shoosh, bam.
ALLEN: Cooper passed out. But a boy in the next room later told him he counted 135 lashes. As incredible as it may sound, Cooper's story is not uncommon. There are dozens of White House boys with similar tails of beatings they received at the school in the 1950s and '60s. Several years ago, they began telling their stories in newspapers accounts and TV reports. Florida's former governor, Charlie Crist, ordered a state investigation into the allegations of abuse, torture and deaths alleged at the school. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed the White House boys and former staff, but said it couldn't find enough evidence to support the allegations.
ROGER KISER: It all boils down to civil liability. They do not want anybody to be able to have factual evidence which would make them have to pay for these - what I consider to be crimes.
ALLEN: Roger Kiser is a White House boy who helped form the group and who has written about his experiences at the school in the late 1950s. That state report also found no evidence indicating a staff member was responsible for any student deaths. Kiser doesn't accept the state's conclusion.
ROGER KISER: No. There's just too many stories. I know of one that I personally saw die in the bathtub that had been beaten half to death. I thought he'd been mauled by the dogs because I thought he had ran. I never did find out the true story on that. There was a boy I saw that was dead that came out of the dryer. They put him in one of those large dryers.
ALLEN: State investigators said that using school records, they were able to identify 31 former students interred in the school cemetery. Records show 50 other boys also died at the school with no indication of where most are buried. But in recent months, researchers from the University of South Florida have been spending time on the school grounds working to answer some of those questions.
RICHARD ESTABROOK: All right, Matilda(ph), let's go.
ALLEN: Like a farmer driving a high-tech plow, archaeologist Richard Estabrook pushes cart-mounted, ground-penetrating radar equipment over an area near the school's old cemetery. Instead of crops, Estabrook is plowing for data - information that identifies gravesites. He stops pushing for a moment to show what appears as wavy lines on his equipments' screen - signs he's found another grave.
ESTABROOK: This sort of disturbance as it goes down there? See how these are all pretty much uniform going down?
ALLEN: Mm-hmm. Those lines across...
ESTABROOK: But all of a sudden, these lines across here, all of a sudden, you start to see this disturbance being very different?
ESTABROOK: In this area? That's the classic indication of a grave shaft.
ALLEN: Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle is leading the research at the Dozier school. She's an associate professor at the University of South Florida who became interested in the case after hearing the White House boys' stories. At the cemetery - just a clearing in the woods near the school - there are 31 crosses to mark those buried here. But in that section and in surrounding areas, Kimmerle has already identified 49 grave sites, and some, she says, may contain more than one person. For her, though, one question remains hard to answer: why are there no records of where any of the boys who died at the school are buried?
ERIN KIMMERLE: Yet, when you look at the state hospital, the state prisons, the other state institutions at the time, there are very meticulous plot maps you can reference. Or if you are a family member today, you can say, where is, you know, my great aunt buried? And they can show you exactly where. So, you know, why that didn't happen here, I don't know. But that does stand out.
ALLEN: Kimmerle says identifying who's buried in the graves would require exhuming the bodies, something that can only be done if a family member of one of the deceased requests it. And that's where Glen Varnadoe comes in. Varnadoe is a businessman from Central Florida whose uncle, Thomas, was sent to the school in the 1930s when he was 13 years old. A month later, he was dead. Varnadoe wants to exhume his uncle's remains and bring them back for burial in his family's graveyard. He's hoping Kimmerle's research will make that possible. But he believes the cemetery where she's been working isn't the only one on the school grounds. In the 1990s, Varnadoe visited the school - at that time still open - and asked to see his uncle's grave. He says a school staffer directed him, not to the cemetery where Kimmerle is working, but to another location.
GLEN VARNADOE: He took me to a second place and said, here's where we believe the five kids that died in the fire in 1914 are buried, and here's where a good possibility because of the timeline that you're uncle could be buried here.
ALLEN: Varnadoe isn't sure where that second cemetery is located. Kimmerle and many of the White House boys believe it's on a section of school grounds that's up for sale. That sale, though, is now on hold. Last week, Varnadoe went to court and secured a temporary injunction that halts it until his uncle's remains are found.
VARNADOE: There is absolutely no question and no doubt that people that worked at that facility during the late '80s and early '90s knew then and know now that there are other places on the grounds of that school where children are buried.
ALLEN: After blocking them for months, the state has now agreed to allow Kimmerle and her team access to the rest of the school grounds. The White House boys believe Kimmerle's work will help uncover the truth about what happened at the school. Eventually, they hope to receive an apology and compensation from the state of Florida for the abuse they suffered there. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
BLOCK: This is NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.