TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

The Florida Department of State on Monday turned down a request from University of South Florida researchers who want to exhume human remains at a now-defunct Panhandle reform school to see if they can identify who was buried there and how they died.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner said in his letter to the university that his department doesn't have the legal authority to grant the request.

"Under Florida law, human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes. To the contrary, the law presumes that buried human remains will rest undisturbed, and allows their intentional disinterment only in narrowly defined circumstances," Detzner wrote.

The university has been researching the burials at the school, which closed in 2011. The property is still owned by the state. The permit request was made through the department's Bureau of Archeological Research. Detzner said archaeological research permits are "restricted to the recovery of objects of historical or archaeological value, not human remains."

USF researchers have verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children between 1914 and 1973 at the Dozier School, located about 60 miles west of Tallahassee. Records indicated that 45 individuals were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 while 31 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial. That leaves at least 22 bodies unaccounted for.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have backed USF's attempt to exhume the bodies.

"Attorney General Pam Bondi has been supportive of every effort to bring closure to the families of those who died at the Dozier School for Boys. We intend to reach out to University of South Florida researchers to see what options are available," said Bondi spokesman Jennifer Meale.

USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said the school's attorneys will discuss the decision Tuesday and consult with Bondi's office before deciding the next step.

Nelson criticized the decision in a press release.

"At this point, it's starting to look like a classic run-around," Nelson said. "This is state-owned land, it's the state's responsibility and the state of Florida needs to do the right thing and not pass the buck."

Earlier this year, a circuit judge rejected a request from Bondi to exhume bodies from "Boot Hill Cemetery" and surrounding areas.

The school was plagued by scandal almost since its inception; tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children have been documented.

The state Legislature has given the researchers $190,000 for the search and exhumation.