TAMPA — Coffin nail by coffin nail and bone fragment by bone fragment, University of South Florida forensic anthropologists are learning more about the identities of remains exhumed months ago from a hidden cemetery at the state's longest-running and most criticized reform school.
Researchers have so far analyzed 12 of the 55 sets of remains unearthed at the former Dozier School for Boys, developing biological profiles and establishing theories about date of burial, age and race. They've received DNA analysis from the University of North Texas Health Science Center on five of the bodies, but have not yet identified any of the boys.
The first seven remains from which the scientists were able to determine race are all African-American. Though it's too early to tell, the revelation lends weight to the theory that there were two cemeteries on the Panhandle campus — one for blacks, one for whites — and the 55 remains exhumed from the same area could all be black children, said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was updated on the research on Tuesday.
"I want Dr. (Erin) Kimmerle to get to the bottom of this," Nelson said, pledging to get USF the time and money it needs to finish the project.
The researchers' goal is to identify all the remains and attempt to determine cause of death before reburying them, either in family plots or some agreeable location. The work is tedious because the remains are in poor condition. Some were found buried under or near mature trees whose roots grew through the bones, leaving them in thousands of tiny fragments.
"It's a very slow process," said Kimmerle, an associate professor of anthropology who is leading the work, "but it's thorough and it lets us get all the information that's possible."
USF was able to reconstruct a child's skull from fragments and superimpose the facial approximation of a boy 10 to 12 years old. The composite was "an effort to put a face on him, to humanize him," Kimmerle said.
The team is about halfway through analyzing thousands of burial artifacts — from coffin nails and funeral hardware to bottles of embalming fluid and coins found over one boy's eyes. Researchers found a marble in what would have been one boy's pocket.
The project started several years ago, after a group of old men went public with stories of being brutalized at the school and of classmates who disappeared. A state investigation in 2009 determined 31 boys were buried on campus, matching exactly the number of crude pipe crosses planted in a clearing in the pines. Using ground penetrating radar first, then excavation, USF found nearly twice as many remains as the state. And it plans to continue to search for a second cemetery in May and June. Researchers, teamed with detectives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, have used ground penetrating radar on about 5 acres of the massive 1,400-acre campus.
The school — called the Florida School for Boys and the Florida Industrial School — opened in 1900 and has routinely been subject to media scrutiny. Nearly 100 boys are reported to have died in custody or while trying to run away.
Wrote the Tampa Tribune back in 1918: "The reformatory is the skeleton in the closet for the Floridian, the dark dirty secret of which he is most ashamed and regarding which, it is now to be hoped, he will demand a thorough cleansing."
It finally closed in 2011 amid more controversy and a critical Department of Justice report, but Nelson is still looking for that cleansing.
"We owe it to the families," he said, "to get to the bottom of this."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650. Follow him on Twitter @gangrey.