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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Justice for Dozier boys

For most of the last century, professed ignorance has been Florida's official position on atrocities at the state-run Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. It can't be anymore. University of South Florida scientists have discovered the remains of 55 boys at the closed reform school — 24 more than state law enforcement officials counted just five years ago. And USF officials suspect there are more to find. The state owes it to those boys' families and to former Dozier students to support the USF investigation wherever it leads. It may be too late for justice for the families of those boys who were tortured and killed, but it is not too late to provide a thorough accounting and closure for those waiting decades for answers.

The findings announced last week suggest indifference or superficial interest in getting at the truth about Dozier — even as recently as 2009 by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. USF anthropologists, with the use of ground-penetrating radar, found the often-haphazard graves over the last year, along with thousands of artifacts. It's not yet known if any of the discoveries will provide clues to the children's deaths. But the revelation confirms what Dozier survivors have long reported: School officials had so little regard for the young lives entrusted to their care that they did not keep accurate records of who was killed and buried where in handmade coffins.

In recent years, elderly men who were sent to Dozier as boys, sometimes for something as simple as truancy, have told horrific tales of abuse: of a small building on the campus, called the White House, where boys would be tied to a bed and pummeled with a leather strap; of spending up to three weeks in isolation or being hog-tied. They spoke of classmates who never returned from the White House.

Gov. Charlie Crist ordered an investigation by FDLE in 2009, but its report focused on pointing out the limits of a criminal investigation of decades-old actions rather than the potential of an aggressive investigation with modern technology. FDLE discounted using ground-penetrating radar, for example, because tree roots could cause false readings.

It took determined USF researchers, overcoming state objections, to lead to this week's revelations. Attorney General Pam Bondi has lobbied on behalf of the Dozier families, and she fully grasps the horrors behind the unmarked graves. Last week, she evoked the discovery of at least one boy, believed to be age 6, who was buried with a marble in his pocket — a small, poignant testament to the innocence lost when government shuts children out of sight and out of conscience.

USF, with the help of Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee's office, has been trying to track down relatives of boys believed to have died at Dozier so they can collect DNA and identify all 55 bodies. The scientists also hope to explore more of the grounds, as several witnesses have recounted being told there were two separate burial areas, thought to stem from the era of segregation.

That work must continue. But state officials also have more than a century of denial for Florida to acknowledge. Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet and the Legislature can start by giving full support to USF's efforts. They also can apologize on behalf of the state to Dozier survivors, many of whom have been scarred for a lifetime by what happened in Marianna. No government should have allowed what happened to those children, much less ignored it for generations.