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Florida Researchers Complete Investigation Into Shuttered Reform School


Florida attempted to turn a page on a dark chapter of its history today. Researchers released the final report of an investigation of unmarked graves at the now closed Dozier School for Boys. For more than a century, the reform school in Florida's panhandle was notorious for abuse and beatings. Some boys died there. And after a three-year investigation, a team from the University of South Florida says it's been able to identify only some of the remains found at the school. NPR's Greg Allen joins us from Tallahassee, where the researchers delivered their report to the governor today.

And Greg, this is a story that's gotten a lot of attention, especially after many of the men who were sent there as boys have told their stories of horrific beatings. The school was closed in 2011. What new did we learn today?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, I'll get there, Robert, but a little background first that, you know, these stories were told by a group called the White House Boys. They took their name from a small white building on the old Dozier School campus where they say these beatings were administered. And dozens of these men have come forward over the years with similar stories of how they received a hundred lashes or more from a leather strap that was weighted with metal they say. The White House Boys say that some children died as a result and that some of those are the people who are buried in those unmarked graves at the school. Those stories are what lead a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida, Erin Kimmerle, to ask the state of Florida for permission to conduct the search for graves at the school. After exhuming bodies and conducting a DNA analysis, Kimmerle says her team has positively identified the remains of seven boys buried on the school grounds and presumptively identified 14 others using other means.

SIEGEL: But researchers say that 55 sets of remains were found there. What happens to the remains of the boys who haven't been identified?

ALLEN: Well, Kimmerle says her team is committed to working with the families to identify the rest of the remains if possible, and the work will continue. One problem is finding the families of the boys who died there. The earliest deaths that they've found were around 1914 and boys are known to have been buried at the school into the 1960s. But records of who the boys were who died at the Dozier School are hard to find. The White House Boys and researchers say deaths there were often not reported. Some of the White House Boys were on hand for the final report today and they were asking the state for remembrance of some sort to record what happened there. Here's one of the White House Boys, Bill Price.

BILL PRICE: There should be a memorial put up in front of that White House building letting people know what happened, what the state of Florida allowed to happen, and that it should never happen again.

SIEGEL: Greg, does this conclude the search for remains or are the researchers confident that they have found all those who were buried at the school even if they haven't identified them all?

ALLEN: Well, I think the search is over. The forensic anthropologist in charge, Erin Kimmerle, says, though, that she can't say if they've found all the bodies that were buried there or if there are more out there. She says they ran down every lead they could find, they've done all they can do. But from looking over archives and news accounts, researchers say there's about a hundred boys who were known to have died at the school over more than a century, and in the end they found only 55 graves. So that's led many of the White House Boys to believe there are more graves out there on that 1,400-acre campus. But unless new information comes out where the graves might be, Kimmerle says her team's work is over.

SIEGEL: And what about the remains, where will they be reinterred?

ALLEN: Well, that's something of a sore point here. The White House Boys are adamant that the remains should not be interred at the old Dozier School, they should be far away and they should not be interred at the nearby town of Marianna or even in that county there. Many feel the town was complicit in the mistreatment of the boys who were held at the school. Some officials and business leaders from Marianna, though, were on hand today here in Tallahassee to express interest in the future of the 1,400-acre property. One that I talked to said the town was willing to acknowledge its past, to apologize and to move on, and some of the White House Boys told me that they now are ready to do the same thing - to move on.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Allen speaking to us from Tallahassee.

Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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