In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Let USF identify dead Dozier kids

The mysteries of the Dozier School go beyond forgotten boys dumped in unmarked graves, their names, their causes of death conveniently excised from the institution’s records.

Now we can ponder the “why” behind the inexplicable decision by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to stop a University of South Florida archeological team from excavating and identifying those discarded bodies.

Last week, Detzner notified USF that he would not allow the team to excavate and identify the skeletal remains. He warned that the USF operation was only authorized to “determine the location of the grave sites,” allowing preservation of the cemetery “as a valuable historical resource for Florida and surviving family members.”

Except, the limitations Detzner imposed on the archeologists assured that those “surviving family members” will never know that their relatives’ bodies had been buried in the old reform school’s boot hill.

What records were kept at the Dozier School — the Jackson County institution that closed two years ago after 110 years as the most infamous juvenile lock-up in the nation — indicated that 29 children and two adults had been buried in a haphazard cemetery on the sprawling rural campus.

Then last year, USF professor Erin Kimmerle led a team of archeologists and anthropologists who found scientific evidence that at least 19 more bodies had been secreted in that old graveyard. Her findings lent support to the assertions by former inmates, survivors of Dozier’s brutal regime, who have long claimed that the number of the dead was much higher — that boys had been killed by guards and tossed into unmarked graves.

Further, Kimmerle’s team thinks that this was just the black cemetery, a relic of the school’s segregation days when blacks and whites were kept apart, alive or dead. She thinks there’s yet another forgotten cemetery on the campus, where the bodies of white boys were discarded.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi took up the cause, petitioning a Jackson County judge for an exhumation order on behalf of the USF team. Judge William Wright ruled in May that 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.

But Detzner, and, by extension, his boss Gov. Rick Scott, intervened. Detzner, a Tallahassee beer lobbyist before Scott appointed him secretary of state, warned Kimmerle and USF: “Under Florida law, human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes.”

“USF agrees with you,” answered USF deputy general counsel Gerard Solis on Monday. “The purpose of USF’s work at Dozier is not to excavate bodies for research as an academic end in itself, but rather it is engaged in research intended to locate unmarked human burials and identify human remains so that those remains can be returned to their families.

“Put another way,” Solis added tartly, “USF researchers are not at Dozier to get ideas for a journal article, but to return lost human remains to their families.”

He wrote that “archaeologists often excavate and relocate human remains” using permits issued by the Department of State’s Division of Historic Resources, including “human skeletal analysis.”

Those permits don’t usually capture the attention of the secretary. So why now? Why did Detzner pick this case to suddenly rewrite agency policies?.

“The state has ample authority here,” Sen. Bill Nelson protested in a statement issued Monday. “Their refusal to issue the permits is just a dodge.”

It is a dodge. And it’s a mystery why Scott and Detzner decided to obstruct efforts to identify the forgotten boys. The awful abuse suffered by the inmates of the Dozier School happened years before Scott took office. Yet he and his appointee chose to shut down the investigation.

If nothing else, it seems like clumsy politics. None of the state’s other leading politicians have objected to Professor Kimmerle’s work at Dozier.

The only grumbling has come out of Jackson County, the rural, insular enclave that supplied the guards who administered the brutal beatings and surreptitious burials. Last year, some locals asked the local prosecutor to go after Kimmerle and the USF team for “grave desecration.”

While it’s hard to imagine that rural Jackson County has enough political influence to stop this investigation, it’s worth noting that Gov. Scott was up in Jackson County on Sunday to support a Republican county commission candidate.

Or it may be that Scott is worried about lawsuits — about the families suing once the dead boys are identified, though that prospect hasn’t bothered Pam Bondi, whose office would be faced with defending any civil suits.

Perhaps Scott’s lack of enthusiasm comes in reaction to the fervor shown by Sen. Nelson, a political rival, for sorting out the Dozier School mysteries. Its’s hard to imagine, though, previous holders of that office, say Charlie Crist or Jeb Bush or Lawton Chiles or Bob Graham, not seizing the issue as their own.

In 1968, Gov. Claude Kirk provided his successors the template for dealing with sadistic cruelty and unexplained deaths at the Dozier School. Kirk made a surprise visit and emerged outraged. “If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d be up there with rifles,” he said.

It was an outrage, what happened to those boys confined to that hellhole in Jackson County. And it deserves an accounting.

Instead of obstructing this investigation, Gov. Scott and Secretary Detzner should have hurried to that forsaken campus, shovels in hand, to be with Professor Kimmerle, promising answers, justice and names for those forgotten boys.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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