TALLAHASSEE -- For decades, survivors of Florida’s infamous Dozier School for Boys have said there are more secrets in the ground at the Marianna reformatory where hundreds of children were whipped, beaten and abused.
Among the thousands of boys who passed through the now-shuttered campus in its 111-year history, they say more than a hundred may have been buried in its soil. But though researchers in the last few years have identified 55 burials on Dozier’s grounds since its closing, there has never been a full search for what survivors claim are more of their brothers who might lie under the campus’ tall grass and pine trees.
State officials said Thursday that they will survey the entire 1,200-acre campus for the first time, after workers earlier this year stumbled upon 27 possible “clandestine” graves not far from Dozier’s official burial grounds. The campus-wide search will use existing radar-like laser mapping data to detect abnormalities that warrant more on-the-ground investigation. They are also still probing the possible graves and could answer as early as the next few weeks whether they contain previously unidentified human remains.
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The new, more thorough, search may help answer one of Dozier’s — and the state’s — most chilling mysteries: How many boys met their end at the state-run institution?
“We’ve been asking for this for some time,” said Charlie Fudge, who was a detainee at Dozier in the 1960s and is part of the White House Boys, a group of survivors named for the building at Dozier where some of the worst assaults occurred. “We know that there’s still boys that’s buried under those grounds that were beaten and abused.”
The Florida State Reform School, as Dozier was first known when it opened in 1900, was meant to be a home where “young offenders, separated from the vicious, may receive careful, physical, intellectual and moral training,” as it was described at the time. The Florida Times Union then called the reformatory “a new departure in the treatment of youthful criminals.”
But the boys sent there — some for as little as petty theft or disputes with their families — found the campus in Jackson County to be a backdrop for unspeakable beatings and assault.
A painful reunion at school of horror
The campus was segregated when it was first built: two dormitories on the north and south side for black and white children, respectively. But it was in a small, dark, cinder-block building termed the White House where boys would be sent, then beaten by guards dozens of times with a strap of leather and metal.
Former detainees describe being ordered to lie on their stomachs, on a bed stained with blood and specks of flesh from the boys who had been beaten before them, and being told not to scream as they were whipped again and again. Some have also said they were sexually abused below the dining hall nearby, in what they called the “rape room.”
Roy Conerly, 73, another survivor, recounted being sent once to the White House for getting six pancakes from another detainee while he was at Dozier.
“When you went to the shower room at night you could see everyone who’d gone to the White House,” he said recently. One boy, he remembered, “was black from the back of his knees to the middle of his back… his skin was split.” Though the state banned corporal punishment in the ‘60s, beatings still continued at Dozier long thereafter.
In 2008, a handful of boys who had come through the state institution found each other — and shared their similar stories — on the Internet, dubbing themselves the White House Boys and demanding that what they suffered be acknowledged by the state.
The troubled site was finally closed in 2011, about when the U.S. Department of Justice reported “systemic, egregious and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls,” along with little staff training or treatment for youth with mental illness or issues with substance abuse.
The following year, state officials authorized a survey by University of South Florida researchers, including Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the university. That examination, done with ground-penetrating radar and excavation tools, identified 55 sets of remains and about 100 boys that might have died there during its history.
But most of the site, which has since been transferred from state control to Jackson County, has never been thoroughly searched for more remains. Though there is a marked burial ground near the north side of the campus, multiple survivors of Dozier have recounted other sites where bodies were buried. But markers and records of those sites have disappeared, either deliberately erased or lost to time.
The state’s decision to at last examine the entirety of the grounds could provide a conclusion to the stories of bloody beatings, abuse and death that have haunted Dozier for more than a century.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee said Kimmerle and her team of researchers at USF will start investigating the anomalies in mid-July, using $850,000 allocated by the Legislature. If the anomalies are determined to indeed be human remains, the area may be determined to be a crime scene for further investigation, she added.
The researchers will also, for the first time, examine surface maps built with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which utilizes lasers rather than radio waves the way radar does, to identify aberrations across the entire campus that warrant further investigation. That process may take until the end of the year, said Kimmerle.
The LIDAR data is not infallible, she added, noting that much of the campus is heavily forested and they are searching for possible remains that may be up to a century old. But people involved in decisions around the site “want a sense of closure. They want a sense we’ve done everything we can.”
Asked why it took so long for such a survey to be done, Lee said Gov. Ron DeSantis had instructed state agencies to take action on the anomalies and do “any further research or discovery that was necessary.”
“This is a subject that this administration takes very seriously, and we will handle it correctly,” she said.
Fudge and other survivors said the search fulfills a request they’ve lobbied for since they formed the White House Boys group to highlight the abuses they suffered and could return what they call their brothers to families that never got closure.
“I get emotional just thinking about all of the hardships that all of us boys went through,” said Fudge. “That’s something that we live with every day of our lives.”