After more than an hour of gut-wrenching testimony filled with tales of beatings and death, the state is no closer to knowing what to do with a shuttered reform school in North Florida where University of South Florida researchers have recovered dozens of human remains.
Still, those who survived their stay at the state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys outside Marianna said Thursday’s meeting before Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet gave them some closure. Jerry Cooper, one of a half-dozen survivors of the school to speak to the Cabinet, said knowing that the government is listening to them and finally believing the horrors they went through means a lot.
“I’ve waited 50 years for this,” said Cooper, a Cape Coral man who as a 16-year-old endured ruthless beatings at the school in the 1960s. “I have faith they will do the right thing.”
But members of the Cabinet did more than listen to Cooper and others who have been dubbed “The White House Boys,” referring to an infamous detention building where beatings occurred. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said what happened at the school is unconscionable and should never be forgotten.
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“I’m very sorry for what these men and generations of boys endured while wards of the state,” Putnam said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi applauded the men for shedding light on the “unspeakable atrocities” they suffered and making the state take notice.
“Thank you for being brave enough to come forward,” Bondi told the men who traveled hundreds of miles from around the state to attend the meeting. “And thank you for helping us as a state put this in the past, and go forward.”
The comments came after USF anthropologists told Scott and the Cabinet that their three-year project to identify the remains of boys’ bodies buried at the site has ended with seven positive DNA matches and 14 presumptive identifications. A total of 51 sets of remains were found on the campus, which is 20 more than the state’s chief law enforcement agency said were buried there after a rudimentary investigation in 2008 and 2009.
The report shows most of the deaths that occurred were because of illnesses, but others were more mysterious, involving shootings, drownings and beatings.
The report ends the university’s work on the school grounds in Jackson County, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee.
The project, headed by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, was launched several years after five former wards of the school spoke publicly in 2008 about being tortured by school employees.
Left unresolved Thursday is what happens next. There is disagreement even among survivors of the school about what to do with the remains of children that have not been claimed by family. While some have called for re-burying them near the site of the school, others have protested that they should never be returned there.
Also in dispute is what to do with the 1,400-acre school property, which remains chained and fenced. There is general consensus to place a memorial on the site, but what to do with other buildings and land on the campus is a question dividing state and local officials and those who attended the school.
Putnam said he worries that leaving the property as is would create “some haunted juvenile prison that just breeds more rumors and mythology.”
But USF researchers uncovered issues that could hinder redevelopment of the site or potential reburials. During excavations, they also uncovered contaminants in the soil including lead, arsenic, mercury and asbestos.
Putnam after the meeting suggested creating a panel of former Dozier students, families of the deceased, Jackson County officials and other parties to reach consensus about what to do with remains found there as well as future use of the property.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is meeting with USF researchers in Tampa to further discuss their report. Nelson has been an outspoken advocate for a Dozier investigation and helped secure a grant to test DNA found there.