A catastrophic storm may help bring justice to the families of victims of a notorious Florida reform school.
On Monday, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist, began an investigation of 27 “anomalies” discovered by an engineering firm hired by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to help clean-up following Hurricane Michael, according to Florida’s Department of State.
Though the 27 anomalies discovered by radar are “consistent with possible graves,” according to Governor Ron DeSantis, only fieldwork will determine whether human remains are present at the site.
“We understand there are a lot of people who care deeply about our findings,” Kimmerle said in a statement from her university.
Among those who care deeply is Reverend Russell Meyer, a former member of the Dozier state commission and now a Dozier stakeholder.
“What’s there? Nobody knows what’s there,” Meyer told CNN. “There is a lot of legend and a lot of local stories of various kinds of activities that have gone on in this area, and we just want the evidence. Tell the truth and have a clear history.”
Dale Landry, a former member of the Dozier task force representing the NAACP and now a stakeholder, told CNN: “For many of us, this came out of nowhere. We were totally shocked. We don’t know what we’re going to find. Everybody is sitting on pins and needles waiting.”
The 27 “anomalies” are located less than 200 yards from a section on the Dozier school property known as Boot Hill Cemetery, where, previously, USF researchers found 55 graves.
The first priority for Kimmerle, who led the original 2012 excavation at Dozier, is determining whether or not the anomalies are human burials. Yet, she and her USF colleagues are also tasked with analyzing as much of the nearly 1,400 acre property as possible to identify any additional areas of interest warranting further investigation.
This field work will involve the use of similar methods and processes, according to a government statement. The USF researchers will remove topsoil from the ground for analysis and then test and excavate by hand. If needed, the researchers will also provide forensic analysis and DNA testing.
Depending on what’s found, the researchers may use light detection and ranging technology (LIDAR) to determine if there are any additional “areas of concern” on the site, according to a university statement. “Our objective is to answer as many questions as possible, as we have done throughout the course of our research at the site,” said Kimmerle.
The investigation could take from 6 months to one year, according to Florida’s department of state, which plans to communicate updates or discoveries as they develop.
Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (earlier known as the Florida State Reform School and Florida Industrial School) opened on January 1, 1900, on 1400 acres of land. Originally, the school was intended as a refuge for troubled children, including those found guilty of theft and murder, according to a USF report.
Later, children guilty of minor offenses, including truancy, and innocent children, including orphans, were placed in the school.
Many families and witnesses believe children died under questionable or suspicious circumstances at the school, the USF report said. Between 1914 and 1960, burials occurred on school grounds in an area known as “Boot Hill,” where white crosses commemorating 31 burials were placed decades later. In 2011, the school closed.
Shortly thereafter, the USF research team began its work to identify those buried at the school and the circumstances of their deaths.
What they found incited “great controversy” in the community, Meyer said. Some local voices “strongly objected” to the USF research, while “a lot of people” simply did not want to believe “the story of the horrors” that had taken place at the school, he said.
“In its heyday, Dozier was considered a great institution,” Meyer said. Each year, boys at the school would design a huge Christmas display and “cars would line up for a couple of miles” to see it. Many people in Jackson County had worked there or had family who worked there or had a business serving the school. Add to that, the school, which was also a working farm, received children from throughout the country. “We have to remember this school at its height was the largest reformatory school in the country,” Meyer said.
Inevitably, then, the original USF investigation became a subject of contention. Civil rights and race questions were raised once the researchers discovered that most of the remains were African American boys. It was “very disconcerting” that “some great horror” had gone on at the school, Meyer said.
At times, the researchers required police protection, he said.
Today, attitudes about the current investigation are different.
“I’m very happy to say that everybody is at the table and there is a consensus for moving forward to find out what we can possibly know about the property and come up with a clear history,” Meyer said.
Hurricane Michael changed the environmental situation for the better. Assessment of the property had begun prior to the category 5 storm, yet damage done by hurricane opened up clearings on the property where previously there were none, Meyer said.
“Before Hurricane Michael, the foliage in the area was in many cases so extremely thick that LIDAR could only do so much” for those investigating the property for hidden graves, he said. The new clearings might also make it possible for the USF researchers to investigate beyond the 27 anomalies and either prove or disprove community rumors of other illicit burials on school grounds, Meyer said.
Landry said “there’s a lot of stuff being uncovered as a result of the Hurricane. For many of us, we feel that those were the spirits calling out.” These “voices of the dead” need to be heard, he said: “We’re holding and waiting.”
Meyer said, “Dozier, in my opinion, represents the story that happens when we turn our backs on public accountability of the institutions we create for caring for children in need and at risk.”
“We have to remember the victims — they were completely innocent,” he said.