In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Dead Dozier kids finally matter

No one much cared before. Not when these children were brutalized by the guards at the Dozier School for Boys. Not when their bodies were discarded into unmarked graves.

The sadist guards and administrators, the ones still alive, who beat and raped and maybe killed children there with impunity, must be suffering something like cultural whiplash.

Same for the other staffers who abetted the atrocities there. Or to residents of the nearby community, who knew what was happening at the school, but shrugged it off.

It must be a shock up there in Jackson County to discover that those forgotten kids, the dross of society, some of them dead for decades, suddenly matter. That two years after Florida closed down Dozier, the state now intends to unearth the moldering truth about the most infamous juvenile lock-up in American history.

For 110 years, the state reform school near Marianna ran up an ignominious record of peonage, savage treatment and unexplained deaths with only the occasional attempts to rein in the mistreatment. The mistreatment continued to the very end. In 2011, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Dozier found “credible reports of misconduct by staff members to youth within their custody. The allegations revealed systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”

And why wouldn’t the guards treat children as if they didn’t matter? They never mattered before. Proof of that was a haphazard cemetery, weedy and unkempt, marked by a random cluster of crude metal crosses. School administrators produced records that 29 children and two adults had been buried in that patch, known as boot hill.

But former inmates, survivors of Dozier’s brutal regime, have long claimed that the number of the dead was much higher. That boys had been killed by guards and surreptitiously buried on the school grounds. Then last year, a team of anthropologists from the University of South Florida found evidence of at least another 19 bodies secreted in that old graveyard.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi went to court in Jackson County, petitioning for an exhumation order. The attorney general wanted legal cover for the USF anthropologists and the medical examiner. Some locals in Jackson County, not enthused about anyone digging up shameful secrets, had asked the local prosecutor to go after the USF team for grave desecration.

Judge William Wright decided Friday no order was necessary. He said the USF team already had proper permits to search out “unmarked human remains” and the medical examiner has the legal authority to exhume the bodies and perform autopsies.

There had also been grumbling out of Jackson County about the cost of the investigation. But the state Legislature just allocated $190,000 to fund the Dozier investigation. On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter to Bondi, thanking her for “your interest and efforts to resolve the unanswered questions surrounding the cemetery.”

Some powerful people are demanding answers. As if those forsaken kids, long dead, long forgotten in their unmarked graves, suddenly matter.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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