Thursday, April 19, 2018
Editorials

Get to the bottom of Dozier deaths

The tragic story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys will not be complete until every attempt has been made to account for every child who died there — either naturally or at the hands of their abusers. Researchers from the University of South Florida are finally giving these young victims the attention the state has denied them and their families for decades. USF's work is far from complete, and Gov. Rick Scott should provide every assistance needed to ensure it is finished, lest the state continue to deny this horrendous past.

It's now obvious just how superficial the 2008-09 investigation was by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into historical abuses at the now-closed Dozier. That effort was triggered by a lawsuit by a group of men, dubbed the "White House boys," who detailed horrific abuses and possible murders in the 1950s and '60s in a building-turned-torture chamber on campus. But the state's top law enforcement agency never delved deeply into the men's specific claims, instead using the excuses of lapsed time and dead or frail suspects to limit its investigation. It tallied 31 graves on the campus and 81 deaths. Now even those numbers are disputed. And there is a disturbing reference in the USF report released Monday that a box of letters FDLE recovered from the facility was destroyed.

USF's extensive mining of state archives, interviews with survivors and the use of ground-penetrating technology have unearthed evidence of at least 17 more deaths at the school between 1914 and 1973 for a total of 98, including two staff members. It has documented at least 50 probable grave sites in a single cemetery on the side of campus that housed black and other minority students during segregation. And their efforts suggest there is at least one other burial site — and perhaps more — on the rural, 1,400-acre campus.

Also of note is the researchers' effort to establish identities of those who died and shed light on the conditions under which they lived. A significant number of them died within three months of arrival or after escape attempts. And two boys who died were just 6 years old.

The resulting 116-page interim report is a portrait of an institution created in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School that was more interested in exploiting children for labor, applying its own brand of harsh discipline, than in reform and rehabilitation. Its early leaders went so far as to lobby the Legislature to send children arrested for the most minor crimes and extend their sentences so that they might be contracted out as laborers for local businesses. Even early investigations documented children left in isolation or iron chains and classrooms with no desks.

Dozier was formally closed last year after a fresh round of allegations of mistreatment. Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters has called the decision one she is most proud of under Scott's administration. But the final chapter of Dozier cannot be written until the state has done everything it can to identify the children whose lives ended there and under what circumstances. All Floridians have the blood of these children on our hands, and after decades of silence and denial only openness and accountability can begin to lessen the stain.

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