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Lawmakers advance bill to help cover burial costs for Dozier victims

University of South Florida assistant professor of anthropology Dr. Erin Kimmerle passes open graves at the Boot Hill cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in December 2013. On Tuesday, state lawmakers moved ahead with legislation intended to help pay for the reburial of bodies that were removed from the site. [Times files (2013)] 

University of South Florida assistant professor of anthropology Dr. Erin Kimmerle passes open graves at the Boot Hill cemetery at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in December 2013. On Tuesday, state lawmakers moved ahead with legislation intended to help pay for the reburial of bodies that were removed from the site. [Times files (2013)] 

TALLAHASSEE — Families of dozens of children found in unmarked graves at a state-run reform school are closer to getting state funding to pay for new burials.

Surviving victims of beatings at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, however, are not in line for any compensation. At least not yet.

On Tuesday, a pair of bills passed key committees in the Florida Legislature that would give up to $7,500 to the next of kin of the children found in graves on the school's now-shuttered campus in North Florida, just west of Tallahassee. If the bills become law, $500,000 would be set aside for funerals, reburials and grave markers.

"This is about finding some decorum of peace for the families," said State Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa.

Last week, University of South Florida anthropologists submitted a report to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet that showed a total of 51 sets of human remains were found on the school's campus — 20 more than the state had expected to find. USF researchers said their three-year project to identify remains ended with seven positive DNA matches and 14 presumptive identifications.

The report showed that most of the deaths that occurred were because of illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.

The bills advancing on Tuesday do not address the men who have come forward in recent years to detail the horrific beatings they withstood as children at the school in Jackson County.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said "perhaps" those men will be part of some compensation in the future. She said her legislation is simply a first step in trying to help the state turn the page on a "sad chapter."

Since 2008, men who had been sent to the campus as children have detailed horrific beatings. Those who have come forward have been dubbed "The White House Boys," referring to an infamous detention building where beatings occurred.

Joyner, 72, said she heard tales of what went on at Dozier when she was in high school in Tampa. She said she remembers classmates being sent to the school back them. Years later, as a teacher in 1964, Joyner remembers having a class of 43 students, 13 of whom had been sent to Dozier.

Besides money for burials, the legislation would start the process of creating a memorial to the victims of the school. The bill calls for creation of a task force to recommend a location for a memorial, as well as how it should look. It also directs the Florida Department of State to "identify and locate" families of the exhumed children by July 1, 2017.

The legislation passed the Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee and the House Government Operations Subcommittee without opposition Tuesday. Both the full Senate and House have to pass identical bills before the Legislature's annual session ends on March 15 for the money to become available.

"At the end of the day, these boys were placed in the hands of the state and they deserve better than unmarked graves," Narain said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @jeremyswallace.

Lawmakers advance bill to help cover burial costs for Dozier victims 01/26/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2016 9:45pm]
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