Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner's decision to deny researchers the authority to exhume bodies in a clandestine cemetery at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna shows a lapse of judgment and conscience. The state has a legal duty and a moral obligation to account for these deaths, and to try to hide behind a narrow reading of the law is a further insult to the families of those buried there. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has been on the right side of this fight, should work to undo Detzner's mistake for the sake of these families and the historical record.
University of South Florida researchers have been using ground-penetrating radar to map the school's unmarked burial grounds. While many of the graves have been lost, the USF team has identified nearly 50 grave shafts, 19 more than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found in an earlier, cursory investigation. USF also suspects that another cemetery exists. But on Monday, Detzner denied USF's request to exhume the bodies, saying his authority was "restricted to the recovery of objects of historical" value only, "absent a danger to the grave site that actually threatens the loss or damage of those remains."
This is double-talk of the first order. Who could argue that there is no historical value in recovering the remains of boys who died in state custody and on state land — and especially under mysterious circumstances? The state has no idea how many boys are buried at Dozier, much less where and what caused their deaths in the 111 years the camp operated before being closed in 2011. The 50 grave shafts that USF identified still account for only half the deaths the USF team has recorded at the school, which raises the question: Where are the rest? In at least half of the cases, no death certificate for the dead boys can be found. And by keeping investigators away, Detzner is creating a danger to the grave site by failing to allow professionals to secure the integrity of the site and to exhume the remains responsibly.
But even the state's legal responsibility pales in comparison to the moral obligation it owes the families and the public to expose the atrocities that boys endured over the decades at the notorious reform school. In recent years, several hundred men have stepped forward with stories of sexual abuse, extreme beatings and other mistreatment from school staffers. The Tampa Bay Times' Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore chronicled the history of beatings, improper care and mismanagement that scarred generations of boys, who left the facility worse off than when they arrived. The state needs to come to terms with this shameful history, not compound it by sweeping these lives under the table.
USF announced Tuesday it would ask Detzner to reconsider his decision. He should; relatives deserve answers and the chance to bring their loved ones home to family plots. And Bondi is right that the state must clear the air for the historical record. USF and the attorney general should keep the pressure on; closing Dozier for good starts with ending its legacy, which cannot begin until these boys are accounted for and given the dignity they deserve.