The state of Florida last week began repaying its debt to the boys it took away decades ago. Researchers with the University of South Florida identified the first boy — George Owen Smith — among 55 sets of human remains unearthed at the state's now-closed reform school, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. It is too late to erase the pain from that shameful chapter. But the discovery is a reminder that the boys had names, families and lives that were cut short. Now at least their loved ones can bring them home.
Smith's remains were the first to be exhumed a year ago, after USF took the lead following a lackluster effort by the state to account for the horrors. While the state said that 31 boys were buried at the shuttered Panhandle school, the USF researchers, using ground-penetrating radar, found 55 bodies. They are continuing their search for other burial sites.
This month's announcement brought some comfort to Smith's family, who remember the 14-year-old teenager whistling Gene Autry songs near his Auburndale home. And though it doesn't answer the mystery of how Smith died in state custody 74 years ago, his discovery in an unmarked cemetery on school property at least points the finger at Dozier, which operated for 111 years before being closed in 2011.
The USF team deserves credit for handling this responsibility with dignity and determination. Hundreds of men have come forward in recent years with stories of being raped and beaten at the school; nearly 100 boys are reported to have died in custody or while trying to run away. Despite an early effort by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to block the inquiry, USF persevered. Its careful approach in documenting what happened and respectful treatment of the burial grounds has served both the cause of justice and human decency.
Attorney General Pam Bondi has also played a critical role by lending her support to USF's bid to establish a historical record at Dozier. The state should give the researchers the time they need to document all of the deaths and burials on the property. USF has done a service to these families and the public alike by stepping up and confronting a shameful legacy that some Floridians would just as soon keep secret. This was a sensitive and essential task that USF handled well. It doesn't bring the boys back or lessen the pain, but it gives these victims the dignity they deserve.