TALLAHASSEE -- University of South Florida researchers have gone over the head of the state-agency secretary who denied their request to exhume human remains from gravesites at the closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are expected Tuesday to approve a land-use agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection. The deal will give the researchers one year to search for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952 at the one-time “high risk” reform school.
The agreement was advanced by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and USF after excavation efforts were denied by Secretary of State Ken Detzner and a circuit judge.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam backed Bondi’s effort Wednesday.
“CFO Atwater wants the relatives of those buried at the Dozier School for Boys to have the answers and closure they deserve, and he believes USF can help ensure that happens in a way that is responsible and respectful to all of the families involved,” Atwater spokesman Chris Cate said in an email.
Putnam said in an email he is “disappointed that this process continues to be delayed and stonewalled.”
“The state should be facilitating the search for the truth, not serve as the biggest impediment to that truth,” Putnam added. “These families deserve better than how they’ve been treated.”
The researchers have been investigating the Panhandle school, which at one time encompassed 1,400 acres, to determine whether boys at the reform school were possibly killed and buried on school grounds.
“We’ve been doing work, a lot of work, for the past year and a half, but we haven’t been able to bring up any human remains,” USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said.
Researchers using ground-penetrating radar have identified potential graves in what is considered the “colored” cemetery on the site and believe there also is a “white” cemetery on the grounds.
The Legislature put $190,000 into the state budget to fund the research, determine the causes of death, identify remains, locate family members, and cover the costs for any re-interment, Wade-Martinez said.
“They have all the money and everything in place, so once we get the authorization — that is the only thing we need — we’ll be able to begin pretty quickly,” Wade-Martinez said.
A temporary restraining order, issued in October 2012 by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, has delayed a state effort to sell the Dozier property. The order allows the research work to proceed until the body of Thomas Varnadoe is exhumed.
Varnadoe died a month after arriving at the school in the 1930s. He was 13. A family member from central Florida has sought to move the remains to a family graveyard.
On July 15, Detzner denied a permit sought by the USF researchers to dig at the Panhandle site.
Detzner said his department’s Bureau of Archaeological Research didn’t have the authority to approve the excavation, noting that the department is “restricted to the recovery of objects of historical or archaeological value,” but “not human remains.”
In May, Jackson County Circuit Judge William L. Wright denied a request by Bondi’s office that also could have cleared the way for exhuming remains.