State Politics

Florida lawmakers pass bill to pay for reburials of remains found at Dozier School

Glen Varnadoe, the nephew of Thomas Varnadoe, is overcome with emotion at Thomas Varnadoe’s burial in Plant City on Nov. 24, 2014. Thomas Varnadoe died at the Florida School for Boys in 1934, and his family fought for decades to have the remains returned so that he could be buried properly. His remains were identified by a team of researchers from USF who exhumed a cemetery at the school in the Florida Panhandle.
Glen Varnadoe, the nephew of Thomas Varnadoe, is overcome with emotion at Thomas Varnadoe’s burial in Plant City on Nov. 24, 2014. Thomas Varnadoe died at the Florida School for Boys in 1934, and his family fought for decades to have the remains returned so that he could be buried properly. His remains were identified by a team of researchers from USF who exhumed a cemetery at the school in the Florida Panhandle. Tampa Bay Times

The Florida Legislature took its first big step toward addressing decades of torture and abuse at a former state-run reform school by committing $500,000 toward reburying the remains of children found in unmarked graves.

Families of the more than 50 children found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys would be eligible for up to $7,500 each to give proper burials for the children under the measure approved by lawmakers Tuesday. In addition, the state would create a task force to begin making a decision on what type of memorial should be erected at the school in Marianna, a small North Florida town just west of Tallahassee.

The Florida House voted 114-3 for the bill sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa. The same bill passed the Senate last week. The legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.

“More than a tragedy happened at Dozier,” Narain said. “In the eyes of any human being with a heart and a soul, the unimaginable happened at Dozier.”

Narain said that the boys who were put in the hands of the state deserve better than unmarked graves.

Stories have swirled for decades about harsh conditions at the school, open from 1900 to 2011. In 2012, University of South Florida anthropologists began investigating burial grounds on the campus, where pipe crosses marked what was said to be the final resting place for 31 boys who died there. Using ground penetrating radar and excavation techniques, they found 55 graves, many in the woods outside the marked cemetery. Remains were found buried under trees and brush and under an old road.

USF anthropologists presented a report to the Florida Cabinet in January that showed most of the deaths that occurred were because of illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.

“This is a start toward that closure for the families who lost someone,” Narain said on the House floor during debate.

Apart from reimbursing families for burials, lawmakers have been reluctant to support efforts to compensate those who survived harsh conditions at the school.

State Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, pressed Narain to assure him and the Legislature that this was not a “claims bill” to compensate people for what happened at the school. Wood was one of three members to vote against the bill Tuesday.

State Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, made a failed attempt Monday to dramatically reduce the amount of money that families would be eligible for reimbursement. Tobia said $7,500 exceeds reburial costs per victim and said by setting that as a maximum, people would try to spend that amount.

“Two thousand is a lot more reasonable than $7,500,” Tobia said.

But that triggered a flurry of questions from Democrats in the House.

Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, questioned why Tobia would offer such a low amount, noting that the cost of burying his grandmother was far more expensive than $2,000.

“So it’s your opinion Rep. Tobia that because these remains were in the ground that they don’t deserve a respectable burial like one of our family members would?” Fullwood asked Tobia.

Moments later, Tobia pulled his proposal from consideration, keeping the $7,500 maximum in place.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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