The first phase of a new investigation of 27 possible graves near the former Dozier School for Boys found “no evidence of human remains,” according to a joint statement issued Tuesday by the Florida Department of State and the University of South Florida.
The area under investigation is located less than 200 yards from a section on the Dozier school property where, previously, 55 graves were found by USF researchers led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle.
Last week, Kimmerle and her team began a new investigation of the site discovered by an engineering firm hired to clean up following Hurricane Michael, according to Florida’s Department of State. Using radar, the firm located 27 anomalies “consistent with possible graves” and Gov. Ron DeSantis decided in April that fieldwork was necessary to determine whether human remains might be present at the site.
Despite a grave-like appearance, Kimmerle and her team found mostly evidence of tree roots from a previously removed pine tree forest, according to Tuesday’s statement. Using Lidar, a laser-based technology that allows researchers to map the land and its surface characteristics, Kimmerle will now look at the entire 1,400-acre property to identify any additional areas warranting further investigation.
“The Department is committed to seeing the entirety of the investigation through,” said Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee.
During the investigation of the 27 anomalies, Dr. Kimmerle and her team used many of the same methods as they did during their prior work on the school property, including removal of top soil through mechanical stripping and hand excavation of potential anomalies.
“Studying this area of the property was an important step for us to be able to answer the questions that had been raised,” Kimmerle said. She will provide more detailed information her findings when investigating the anomalies at a public meeting, the details of which will be announced in the coming days.
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (earlier known as the Florida State Reform School and Florida Industrial School) opened on January 1, 1900. The school was originally 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, like 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.
The school closed in 2011. Shortly thereafter, the USF research team began its work to identify those buried at the school and the circumstances of their deaths.
The Rev. Russell L. Meyer, executive director of Florida Council of Churches and a former member of the Dozier state commission, told CNN in a statement: “We look forward to the full report that will be provided all the stakeholders as well as the results of the aerial to ground radar study. It is imperative that the state of Florida determine as much as can be known about the history and property of the former Dozier reform school.”