TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted Tuesday to allow university researchers to exhume human remains from unmarked graves at a defunct Florida Panhandle reform school.
Gov. Scott and the Cabinet granted permission to University of South Florida researchers seeking a permit to exhume the bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952 at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a former “high risk” reform school in Marianna.
“This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). “Nothing can bring these boys back, but I’m hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve.”
Nelson and a number of other officials have been outspoken advocates of allowing USF to complete its work, which was stalled by an adverse state decision last month. Tuesday’s decision by the Cabinet comes after months of back and forth between USF researchers and other state officials.
Attorney General Pam Bondi pushed to get the agency that manages state lands to grant USF a one-year permit to excavate any unmarked burials and identify those buried there.
Chris Cate, a spokesman for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said that Atwater “wants the relatives of those buried at the Dozier School for Boys to have the answers and closure they deserve, and he believes USF can help ensure that happens in a way that is responsible and respectful to all of the families involved.”
USF researchers have verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children between 1914 and 1973 at the school. Records indicated that 45 individuals were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 while 31 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial. That leaves at least 22 bodies unaccounted for.
The school was plagued by scandal almost from its inception; tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children have been documented. Florida officials closed the school in 2011 following a state police probe into the latest such allegations that found no evidence of any crimes.
The state Legislature has given the researchers $190,000 for the search and exhumation which is expected to begin later this month.
The researchers will try to match DNA samples taken from the living relatives of boys buried long ago on the grounds of a now-shuttered reform school.