Sunday, December 10, 2017
Politics

State leaders challenged to confront aftermath of horrific Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys

TALLAHASSEE — To some, it's beyond evil, the remnants of a Florida reform school where boys were raped, tortured and killed decades ago.

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna also is valuable state property — one with a horrific history that state officials say must never be forgotten.

"This story is not going to be swept under a rug," said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater at a Florida Cabinet meeting Tuesday. "Is the state taking ownership of telling this story?"

Atwater urged Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to lay the groundwork for future management of the site, including displaying artifacts, creating a memorial to victims and giving their families the ability to conduct burials at state expense.

"The next phases, involving the preservation of artifacts unearthed, the storage and reinterment of the remains of those identified, decisions regarding appropriate memorials, and state funding appropriations will need to be addressed," Atwater wrote in a letter to his colleagues. "The issues involving the preservation of historical resources and records, archives and state monuments seem best to be handled by the Department of State or an appropriate oversight body."

Now that forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida have finished searching the Dozier site for human remains, Scott and Cabinet members discussed giving Secretary of State Ken Detzner the challenge of managing the grounds of the state's first and largest reformatory.

Detzner is the state's chief elections official. But his agency also includes a division of historical resources with this mission: "to inspire a love of history through preservation and education."

"There certainly is some history at Dozier," Detzner told the Times/Herald. "We need to recognize the good and the bad."

Detzner encountered criticism two years ago when he initially denied access to USF researchers to exhume remains of Dozier victims, saying he lacked authority under state law.

Attorney General Pam Bondi intervened and called it a "misunderstanding," and the state gave USF a permit it needed.

The Marianna school is in Jackson County, one of many rural counties where jobs and career opportunities are scarce. Some residents have criticized the extensive exhumation in their town.

"We all are painfully aware of the dark chapter that Dozier represents in our state's history," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said. "This is our opportunity to bring that to a close and create a new chapter — a brighter chapter for the resources on that parcel."

Putnam called the 100-acre Dozier site between downtown Marianna and Interstate 10 "the gateway to their town." He described long-term neglect and asbestos contamination.

A cemetery at the former Panhandle school has 31 pipe crosses planted in crooked rows. Subsequent re­search un­covered more bodies.

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, the USF research team director, said six of the 51 bodies recovered so far have been identified, and that DNA analysis will continue. USF will send a final report to the state in January.

"We searched as exhaustively as we can, following all the leads," Kimmerle said Tuesday.

Dozens of men who were housed at Dozier have come forward in recent years to describe atrocities they suffered.

After one repeated his story Tuesday, Scott apologized on behalf of the state: "I'm sorry it happened to you and to your family," he told Charles Fudge of Homosassa.

Fudge, 67, was 14 when he was sent to what was then called the Florida School for Boys in 1961 for helping his brother steal money from a woman's purse while they were mowing a lawn.

The soft-spoken Fudge, an appraiser and auctioneer, later told reporters he was taken to what was called "The White House."

"I was beaten, 31 licks with a leather strap," Fudge said. "We were made to lay on a cot with our heads buried in the pillow and hold the rails on the cot."

Fudge said it would be a disgrace if the state of Florida allowed the Dozier site to be rehabilitated if human remains were still there.

Dale Landry, a state NAACP official, said some families can't afford to have their loved ones' remains reinterred.

Landry called on the state to pay burial expenses.

"I'm a firm believer there's spirits walking that land," Landry testified. "We're reclaiming our children, and that should be a sacred thing."

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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