The boys that Florida took away are a step closer to coming home. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet are expected to permit the University of South Florida to continue its effort to find and exhume bodies at the state's old reform school, the Dozier School for Boys. The state has a legal duty to account for these deaths and a moral obligation to help families recover and bury their long-lost loved ones.
USF researchers have been using ground-penetrating radar to map the school's unmarked burial grounds. While many of the graves have been lost, USF has identified nearly 50 grave shafts, 19 more than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found. These boys died in state custody, on state land and — given the long history of beatings and other abuses at Dozier — under the most suspect circumstances. The state has a responsibility to account for who is buried there, to protect the integrity of the remains and to return them to their families.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has championed the case, served the cause of justice and the historical record by helping to craft a dignified framework for moving ahead. On Tuesday, the governor and Cabinet, sitting as the state's trustees over public land, will consider USF's request for one-year access to the site. That would give researchers the time to unearth and identify any remains and return them to their families.
The proposal would end a prolonged and unnecessary legal battle about how — or even whether — to move ahead. The agreement would ensure that professionals handled the excavations in a timely, orderly manner. The record of what happened would be both expanded and preserved. And after decades of fading hopes, the families would have the relief of having their loved ones back where they belong. The measure also would overcome Secretary of State Ken Detzner's refusal to allow USF to excavate the site, a classic display of bureaucracy run amok. The important thing now is to move ahead.
Bondi's determination and clear grasp of the legal and moral issues involved were pivotal in helping USF find an alternate route to accomplish its mission. The attorney general was right to put the weight of her office behind a soul-searching look at a shameful Florida legacy. Now it's up to the governor and Cabinet to clear the way for these boys to receive the dignity in death that eluded them in life while in the state's care. The governor and Cabinet should approve the request and let USF get back to work.