Senator Demands Feds Get Involved, Broaden Probe Into Florida Reform-School Deaths
December 12, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C. - University of South Florida researchers announced earlier this week that they’ve found evidence of almost 100 deaths and 50 gravesites at the defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna – which has spurred U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to demand that the Justice Department join the school’s anthropologists in broadening a search to look for more graves, as well as forensic evidence of possible crimes.
Nelson also noted today that he referred allegations concerning a case of abuse at the school to state police just two months ago, shortly after receiving a letter in October from a Lakeland, Florida man, who said his father and uncle were thrown into the reform school years ago, and that his uncle died there under mysterious circumstances. The man now wants to find and exhume his uncle’s body.
“The reform school may yield some ugly reminders about our past, but we absolutely must get to the bottom of this,” Nelson said today.
The senator’s statement came as he wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging that the Justice Department assist USF anthropologists. Nelson’s office also spoke with the school’s researchers and pledged support for their work and offered help so they could meet their recommendations for widening and completing a full investigation at the site.
The release of a report by the researchers this week said they have evidence of 50 gravesites at the institution, even though state police previously said there were only 31 grave sites. The researchers said in their report they believe more graves are yet to be uncovered at the school, which closed only a year ago following revelations of widespread physical and sexual abuse of youths there since early last century.
The school opened in 1900 and was closed by the state for “budgetary reasons” in 2011.
Allegations of abuse had surfaced previously in 2008, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist ordered state police - the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE - to investigate allegations by a group of former students from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Among other things, FDLE found that 81 students had died at the school over the years and 31 were buried on campus. But the agency found no tangible evidence to support allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
Last year, a group of anthropologists and archeologists began their own investigation into the gravesites. They examined historical documents, used ground-penetrating radar, analyzed soil samples and performed excavations at the site to uncover 50 gravesites – or, 19 more than previously identified by FDLE. The researchers also found more deaths occurred at the school than previously known. They uncovered 98 deaths of boys between ages 6-18 in the years from 1914 through 1973.
The research team released its findings Monday and said it plans to return to the site in January.
Glen R. Varnadoe, the Lakeland man who wrote Nelson a Sept. 24 letter, said his uncle, Thomas, died at the reform school after just 35 days there in 1935. Varnadoe intends to seek an exhumation order to bring his uncle’s body to the family plot in Brooksville, Florida. “The school and what it represents in Florida’s history is a concern for all Floridians,” he wrote. “It is time to bring Thomas home.”
Following is the text of Nelson’s letter to the Justice Department and a background report from NBC:
December 12, 2012
Dear Attorney General Holder,
Earlier this week University of South Florida researchers released a report saying they’ve found evidence of 50 gravesites and almost 100 deaths at the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. I am writing to ask that the Justice Department assist USF researchers when they return to the site in January.
The findings come on the heels of years of abuse and mistreatment allegations at the school. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation in 2008 found fewer grave sites and deaths than the USF findings released this week.
For the sake of those who died and the family members still living, we’ve got to find out what happened at that school. I’m asking your department to provide support and assistance to USF researchers in a broadened search to look for more graves, as well as forensic evidence of possible crimes. The families deserve closure once and for all.
Please feel free to contact Clint Odom in my office at 202-224-8749 with any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.
Abuses at infamous Florida boys reform school even more widespread, report says
By M. Alex Johnson, NBC News
Scientists have found 19 previously unknown grave shafts on the grounds of a notorious Florida reform school, suggesting that many more boys died there amid brutal conditions than had previously been known, the researchers said Monday.
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, which was also known as the Florida State Reform School, closed in June 2011 after state investigators and the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division confirmed widespread abuse over many decades.
The state attributed its decision to close the school to budgetary reasons. Yet long before then, the institution had been the target of investigations and lawsuits alleging not only physical and mental abuse but also forced labor, rape and even murder of the young charges sent to its care since it opened in 1900.
The prominent writer Roger Dean Kiser, author of "The White House Boys — An American Tragedy," about the horrors he experienced while incarcerated there in the 1950s as a child, has called the school a "concentration camp for little boys." He wrote that "a devil was hiding behind every tree, every building and even behind every blade of manicured grass."
They're called the White House Boys because much of the abuse occurred in an 11-room building on the school grounds known as the White House, where former students say they were beaten with leather straps. A group of the former students sued the state in 2010, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Previous investigations and records had reported that 31 boys were buried on school grounds, and that most of them died in a fire and an influenza outbreak at the school in the early 1900s. But researchers at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, say they now estimate there are at least 50 grave shafts in the area of the school's cemetery and the surrounding woods. Some graves may have been the final resting place for more than one boy, the researchers said in an interim report released Monday.
Records recovered and examined by the researchers indicate that at least 96 boys and two adults died at the school from 1914 to 1973. Most of boys who were committed to the school and died there were African-American.
But that may be only the tip of the iceberg: The researchers didn't have access to student records after 1960, when such documents became subject to privacy laws. Moreover, researchers couldn't test the entire area because of overgrowth and vegetative conditions, they said.
And more chillingly, there may be other, secret graveyards somewhere on the grounds, given the number of still-unaccounted-for cases and the practice of segregating cemeteries during the first half of the last century, Erin Kimmerle, an assistant professor of anthropology at the university, said on a conference call with reporters. It's highly unlikely that white boys were buried with black boys during those decades, but as yet, the researchers haven't found a previously hidden whites-only cemetery.
"I didn't realize going in how much of a story of civil rights it was," Kimmerle said.
The research team used ground-penetrating radar and other methods to map the school's cemetery and chemically analyzed the soil to identify the number of graves.
"We anticipated finding about 25 to 30 grave shafts," said Christian Wells, an assistant professor of anthropology who led the anthropological work at the site, "but in fact we found a minimum of 50" — all of them on the north side of the campus, called Boot Hill, where African-American boys were segregated.
A full picture of the sheer scale of the abuses remains difficult to paint, because there are significant gaps and discrepancies in the records, "and the cause and manner of death for the majority of cases are unknown," the report said.
"Many questions persist about who is buried at the school and the circumstances surrounding their deaths," the report said. But Kimmerle said the team had determined that at least 20 boys died within the first three months of having been remanded to the school's custody — probably because they were unable to cope with the crowding and the conditions — and that burial locations were unspecified for nearly three times more African-American boys than for white boys.