TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature took its first big step toward addressing decades of torture and abuse at a former state-run reform school by committing $500,000 toward reburying the remains of children found in unmarked graves.
But don't count on that leading to a formal apology from the Legislature any time soon or additional state money to compensate surviving victims of abuse at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Lawmakers have been reluctant to be critical of the small North Florida town where the abuse occurred, let alone compensate survivors.
State Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said ultimately the state needs to do a lot more, but Tuesday's action was a critical start.
Under the bill he and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, sponsored, families of the more than 50 children found at Dozier would be eligible for up to $7,500 each to give proper burials and to find family members of those yet to be identified under the measure approved by lawmakers Tuesday. In addition, the state would create a task force to begin deciding what type of memorial should be erected at the school in Marianna, located just west of Tallahassee.
The Florida House voted 114-3 for the bill. The same measure passed the Senate last week. The legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Scott.
"More than a tragedy happened at Dozier," Narain said. "In the eyes of any human being with a heart and a soul, the unimaginable happened at Dozier."
Narain said the boys who were put in the hands of the state deserve better than unmarked graves.
Stories have swirled for decades about harsh conditions at the school, open from 1900 to 2011. In 2012, University of South Florida anthropologists began investigating burial grounds on the campus, where pipe crosses marked what was said to be the final resting place for 31 boys who died there. Using ground penetrating radar and excavation techniques, they found 55 graves, many in the woods outside the marked cemetery. Remains were found buried under trees and brush and under an old road.
In January, USF anthropologists presented a report to the Florida Cabinet that showed most of the deaths were caused by illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.
"This is a start toward that closure for the families who lost someone," Narain said on the House floor during debate.
State Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, pressed Narain to assure him and the Legislature that this was not a "claims bill" to compensate people for what happened at the school. Wood was one of the three members who voted against the bill Tuesday.
Weeks earlier, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, pressed Narain on whether his bill attempted to blame anyone for what happened.
On Monday, state Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, made a failed attempt to dramatically reduce the amount of money families could receive as reimbursement. Tobia said $7,500 exceeds reburial costs per victim and said by setting that as a maximum, people would try to spend that amount.
"Two thousand is a lot more reasonable than $7,500," Tobia said.
But that triggered a flurry of questions from Democrats in the House.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, questioned why Tobia would offer such a low amount, noting that the cost of burying his grandmother was far more expensive than $2,000.
"So it's your opinion Rep. Tobia that because these remains were in the ground that they don't deserve a respectable burial like one of our family members would?" Fullwood asked Tobia.
Moments later, Tobia pulled his proposal from consideration, keeping the $7,500 maximum in place.
Narain said based on some of the debate over the past few weeks he knows it won't be easy to get to the next step, which he said should be following the lead of members of the Florida Cabinet who publicly apologized in January to victims of Dozier.
"I think there is an opportunity for us to really provide some healing to the survivors of Dozier at the next legislative session," Narain said.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected]. Follow @jeremyswallace.