TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Saying it was time to provide answers from a painful period in the state's past, Florida's top officials voted Tuesday to let researchers dig up and try to identify remains buried at a closed reform school for boys.
Former students have accused employees and guards at The Dozier School for Boys of physical and sexual abuse, so severe in some cases it may have led to death. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated, but in 2009 the agency concluded it was unable to substantiate or dispute the claims.
Researchers at the University of South Florida hope to identify boys in unmarked graves, and perhaps return them to family members for a proper burial.
In its quest to exhume bodies, the university was rebuffed by a judge and by one state agency before Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Cabinet members approved the plan Tuesday.
Researchers received nearly $200,000 from state legislators to begin their project later this month on the site 60 miles west of Tallahassee. The decision by the governor and others came despite opposition of some Jackson County residents who maintain the effort will result in negative publicity.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said the state needed to act.
"We have to look at our history, we have to go back," Bondi said. "We know there are unmarked graves currently on that property that deserve a proper burial. It's the right thing to do."
The vote triggered a round of applause from former Dozier students at the Cabinet meeting.
John Bonner, who called some of the Dozier employees "vicious," said the university's work could help people and families get answers about what happened at the school.
"There's just so many things that could come out of this that could benefit people," said Bonner, who was at Dozier in the late '60s.
The school opened in 1900 and was shut down in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
Sid Riley, the managing editor of the weekly Jackson County Times, wrote to state officials in July, calling the plans a "terrible project."
"We have an active industrial development program and a tourist development program here. If they proceed with this terrible project, our community will be exposed to over a year of negative publicity," Riley wrote.
Riley said the groups "promoting this effort" would ultimately seek compensation and the "politicians are playing up to the minority voters."
Jackson County Commissioner Jeremy Branch said the project would continue to blemish the county and Marianna, where the school is located. He said he was confused as to what the exhumation of the bodies would discover.
"Are we trying to determine if bad things happened 100 years ago in America?" Branch said. "We know bad things happened in America."
Researchers said they have already used historical documents to discover more deaths and gravesites than what the law enforcement agency found.
Researchers said they verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children — ranging in age from 6 to 18 — between 1914 and 1973.
Records indicated 45 people were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 and 31 bodies were sent elsewhere, leaving some bodies with whereabouts unknown.
In May, a judge rejected a request to exhume bodies from what is called "Boot Hill Cemetery," saying the case did not meet the "threshold" to grant the order.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Scott, said in July his agency lacked the legal authority to grant a permit even though the land is state-owned. That led to a push by Bondi to get approval from the state agency that oversees state land. The agency is controlled by Scott and the Cabinet.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show State Archaeologist Mary Glowacki in late April distributed a list of recommendations to the head of the state's Division of Historical Resources, raising questions about the project.
The list asked questions about why an entire cemetery had to be disturbed and she raised doubts about the ability of researchers to find and identify everyone buried there.