MARIANNA, Fla. – Forensic experts from the University of South Florida returned this week to a notorious state reform school, researching 27 additional sites in the area where the remains of more than 50 people were unearthed in 2015.
“Our objective is to answer as many questions as possible, as we have done throughout the course of our research at the site,” said Dr. Erin Kimmerle, the University of South Florida forensic anthropologist who oversaw the initial excavation at the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and who is heading the latest venture. “The only way to really know is to excavate so that's what we're doing and we'll see what it is."
Work that began Monday will determine the appropriate next steps, which could include further digging at the 27 sites that Kimmerle and state officials have said contain “anomalies.” More than 500 former students have alleged brutal beatings, mental abuse and sexual abuse at the Dozier school, which closed in 2011 after 111 years of operation. When the school closed its doors in 2011, it also put more than 200 employees out of work.
Allegations of child abuse and the discovery of human remains on the school grounds cast a shadow of controversy over the town of Mariana during the first dig in 2013.
“You're being branded as if this is a concentration camp city and the entire community felt under attack,” said Art Kimbrough, the former chief executive officer of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce who has been intently involved in the Dozier saga.
Kimbrough said the community reaction to the new excavation is nothing like what was seen six years ago.
“It's much more of an intellectual exercise this time than it is an emotional exercise,” Kimbrough said. "Let's just do the things needed to bring proper and permanent closure to this matter.”
Survivors of alleged abuse at the reform school believe more bodies will be found.
Even if the 27 anomalies don’t end up being human remains, ground-penetrating radar will map the entire campus to end the speculation once and for all.
"That's why the community leaders have been so for getting the answers and doing it right this time, because it does bring closure when you have truth and the answers,” Kimbrough said.
In 2017, the Florida House and Senate passed resolutions formally apologizing for the abuse of juveniles sent to Dozier and a related facility in Okeechobee. The resolutions acknowledged that treatment of boys sent to the facilities was cruel, unjust and "a violation of human decency." The resolutions accompanied a law that required the state to turn over about 360 acres, containing the Dozier site’s North Campus, South Campus and Boot Hill Cemetery, to Jackson County. The law required memorializing the cemetery and what was known as the “White House” on the campus.
The Department of State, which has closed the site to the public, anticipates the latest investigation could take six months to a year. The resumption of fieldwork was announced last month.
Last year, former Gov. Rick Scott steered $5.8 million to Jackson County to redevelop the Dozier campus into a regional distribution and manufacturing center. Also, Scott and members of the Cabinet agreed to transfer, at no cost, another 919 acres that the county wanted for economic-development efforts.
Community leaders hope the Dozier property can eventually be repurposed for new industries to move to the area.