Lawmakers may aid dead boys’ families
BY JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Legislation started moving Tuesday in the House and Senate to help relatives rebury bodies unearthed by researchers looking into abuses at a shuttered reform school in Northwest Florida.
The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee and the House Government Operations Subcommittee backed measures (SB 708 and HB 533) that would allocate $1.5 million for the reburial of bodies removed from the site and to establish a memorial at the 1,400-acre former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
The votes on the similar bills came less than a week after Cabinet members apologized to generations of boys who endured hardships they may have suffered while wards of the state.
‘Anguish and pain’
Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate bill, recalled teaching boys in Tampa in the 1960s who had spent time at Dozier and said more may need to be done for former students of the reform school, which operated from 1900 to 2011. But the goal now, she said, is to help the families of those buried at the site.
“We need to provide some measure of relief to these families, to let them know that we are concerned and share the anguish and pain that they’ve experienced as a result of all that has occurred to their loved ones,” Joyner said after the meeting.
Former Gov. Bob Martinez, making a rare appearance Tuesday before a legislative committee to support the proposal, told senators about growing up in Tampa where the reform school was viewed as a threat to keep kids in line.
“I can recall as a youngster that if you misbehaved or disobeyed you’d often hear, ‘You’re going to end up in Marianna,’ “ Martinez said. “You sort of grew up thinking that must be one hell of a hellhole.”
The proposal, sponsored by Joyner and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, would direct the Department of State to establish a committee to preserve the historical resources and create a memorial to the victims of Dozier.
The state agency would also be required to locate by Dec. 31, 2017 the families of all children exhumed and provide each with up to $7,500 to cover the costs of reinterring remains, including grave markers.
“These expenditures may be reimbursements to the family members or payments directly to a funeral home, or other appropriate entity, if the family is unable to pay for the costs of re-burying the child,” a staff analysis of the bill said.
University of South Florida researchers, who did extensive excavation work at the Dozier site, presented Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet with a final report on the work last Thursday.
While former Dozier students attending the meeting received apologies from Cabinet members, no direction was provided to the state Department of Environmental Protection about what to do with the land. The site had been put up for sale before orders were given in 2013 to research the site because of accounts of violence at the school and bodies being left in unmarked graves.
The 168-page report, which doesn’t verify any students were killed by Dozier staff, outlines the 51 sets of remains unearthed from an area known as the Boot Hill Burial Ground.
Martinez called the buried grounds a “potter’s field.”
Seven of the bodies have been identified through DNA testing, of which four have been turned over to relatives and buried in family cemeteries. The rest of the remains are housed at the Tampa university.
Some former Dozier students said any unidentified remains should be laid to rest outside Jackson County, which includes Marianna. Others have said the bodies should be returned to a mausoleum near the Dozier site, which is now locked behind a high chain-link fence.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the state must find a use for the Dozier site that could be recreational, educational or even for veterans’ services.