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The Struggle for Closure at Florida's Dozier School for Boys

Arthur G. Dozier's School for Boys, which opened in Marianna, Florida, in 1897, was the first juvenile detention center for boys in the state. The institution was active for over a century until its closing in 2011. The original statutory objective of the school was

"the making of . . . not simply a place of correction, but a reform school, where the young offender of the law, separate from vicious associates, may receive careful physical, intellectual, and moral training, be reformed and restored to the community with purposes and character fitting for a good citizen . . . ."

The school from its inception accepted boys of all races, but maintained segregation between its white and black "offenders." Young white men were kept to the south side of the school, while young black men were kept to the north—next to the unmarked northern cemetery. 

Dozier's history is plagued with accusations of abuse that did not seem to affect any real longterm change. This history and testimony from survivors of the institution inspired a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, to initiate an investigation, with a plan to map the unmarked graveyard with ground-penetrating radar ("GPR"). A simple field survey lead her team to believe that the Dozier campus's northern cemetery contained more graves than the school's records provided for, and that a second cemetery existed on the south side of the campus. A permit for excavation was granted in 2013 and by 2014, Dr. Kimmerle's research indicated that there were 55 individuals buried on Dozier campus—twice the number the school had accounted for. 

The call for further investigation and its results led to discourse in the community. This was a sensitive topic, to the victims, the survivors, and family and friends of both, as well to locals without any direct connection to the school. The county, eager to clean its hands of the whole mess, tried to sell the land in 2012. The relative of a victim was able to get a judge to halt such proceedings. The people left behind by the tragedy of Dozier were hurting and wanted answers, while the locals of the area felt that the accusations being brought forth were a personal insult—they fought back by threatening to charge Dr. Kimmerle with the felony of disturbing "a human grave without authority," although no graves had been disturbed. 

The legal route also failed Dr. Kimmerle at this time. A judge denied a petition for exhumation, stating that Dr. Kimmerle's team failed to "meet the threshold for exhumation, [that] there must be more than a suggestion that an autopsy might be probative." Instead the evidence must show that exhumation shows a "good possibility that an autopsy would be revealing as to the cause of death." Judge wright cited the case Currier v. Woodlawn Cemetery, 200 N.Y. 162, 90 N.E.2d 18 (1949): "The quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed. Good and substantial reasons must be shown before disinterment is sanctioned."

While Dr. Kimmerle was able to successfully excavate and exhume the bodies at Dozier, validating the allegations of victims, survivors, and relative, the whole affair and its aftermath leaves plenty of questions behind: How was the school allowed to get away for this so long? How far does community pride go in shielding the evils happening in our own backyard? And why was respect for "the quiet of the grave" so much more important than justice? 

People have speculated on most of these questions for a lot longer than Dozier's excavation scandal has existed. One has to wonder, though—how could a judge find the graves of potential torture victims to be "quiet?" The broader concept of this question is what now plagues the community. The State has drafted and passed plans to turn the Dozier campus into a memorial while also covering "the cost of funerals, reinterment, and grave markers for the boys." Some people think that the legislature has no business getting involved in what happens to these boys' remains. Another camp may believe that these boys deserve this quiet of the grave often referenced to in the common law of human remains, and such quiet will not be found at the site where they suffered. Most everyone can agree that some memorialization is necessary, either for the individual victims, survivors, and loved ones, or to just acknowledge that something heinous occurred and was allowed.

Caitlin Stone


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