Thursday, December 14, 2017

Florida agency defends 2009 investigation of Dozier reform school

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Wednesday defended its 2009 investigation of alleged abuse at a now-defunct Panhandle reform school in response to conflicting information in a recent academic study.

The University of South Florida's interim study cited 13 more deaths and 19 more grave sites at the school than listed in the FDLE's investigative report. FDLE officials attributed the difference in part to the differing natures of criminal investigations and anthropological research.

"While both have value, each has a different standard and scope," the agency said in a statement.

But the FDLE also disputed some of the information and assumptions in the university's study, which was released Dec. 10.

The criminal investigation was unable to substantiate or refute claims by former students of physical and sexual abuse, including deaths, that allegedly occurred decades ago at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The school opened in Marianna, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, in 1900 and was closed last year as a cost-cutting move.

FDLE investigators identified 85 student deaths and 31 grave sites in their report three years ago. The university's study reported 98 student and two staff deaths as well as at least 50 grave sites in an on-campus cemetery known as "Boot Hill." The anthropologists, though, suspect there could be more graves elsewhere on campus and have called for additional research, including the exhumation of remains to help determine causes of death.

FDLE officials said the university study included "probable" and "possible" information that has limited or no value in a criminal investigation.

The university's lead researcher, Erin Kimmerle, did not immediately respond to a telephone message and email seeking comment.

Students ranging in age from 6 to 18 in some instances died due to fire, disease, physical trauma or drowning, but in most cases the causes of death are unknown.

A five-page FDLE report issued Wednesday in response to questions raised by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at a Cabinet meeting last week noted that university researchers used ground-penetrating radar to identify possible gravesites.

"Any anomalies or voids found in a particular area may or may not actually be grave shafts, and such a determination can be definitively made only through excavation of the area in question," the FDLE report says. "Further, it seems premature to conclude that combined 'probable' and 'possible grave shafts' would necessarily equal the 'minimum number of burials' in a particular location."

Both the FDLE and university checked archival material and interviewed former students, their families and former staff members. The university study also included remote sensing and archaeological excavation.

They agree there are 31 confirmed burials that are somewhere besides on the campus. The biggest difference is that the university lists 45 students buried at the school while FDLE confirmed only 31. The university included 11 students who died from influenza who are not on the FDLE's death list because investigators were unable to identify them by name. They say those 11 deaths likely duplicated students already listed by name.

Information about the influenza deaths came from a 1918 Miami Herald article that reported 11 black students and a matron had died in an outbreak at the school. The article, though, did not identify the students.

FDLE officials said two more students on the university's list of those buried at the school also appear to have been double counted. Both died in 1914.

The university's list also included a student whom the FDLE classified as being buried at an unknown location. That difference accounted for the university also listing one fewer student buried at an unknown site than the 23 cited by FDLE.

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