TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- University of South Florida researchers will start exhuming bodies at the former, state-operated Dozier School for Boys in Marianna on Saturday.
Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet have given USF one year to dig up remains on the property, look for additional graves and perform DNA testing to try to reunite the remains with families.
Some relatives of boys who died at Dozier have already given their DNA, hoping they can finally find their long-lost loved ones and discover the truth about how they died.
Boot Hill Cemetery on the school's property contains 31 metal crosses, but the markers don't correspond to the actual interments. The grave markers were placed in the 1960's and the mid-1990's, long after the burials. The exact locations of burials were never documented.
USF researchers used ground penetrating radar in the cemetery last year and found 50 undocumented graves in the area. Their research also uncovered historical documents showing a total of 96 boys' deaths, as well as two adult staffers, between 1914 and 1952.
Records indicate 45 people were buried on school grounds and 31 bodies were shipped to other locations for burial. A total of 22 cases have no records of burial locations.
The cause of death is not known in most cases. Of those recorded, infectious disease, fires, physical trauma and drowning were the most common explanations.
However, USF researchers discovered some unusual patterns among the deaths. Seven boys died following attempted escapes from the school and a high number, 20, boys died within the first three months of arriving there.
Former students are coming forward now and accusing school guards of torture and abuse. The students believe boys were killed and their deaths covered up by school administrators.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said he's talked with families who lost loved ones at Dozier and he thinks it's time to reunite the remains with their families.
"That's what we're trying to do, close this chapter and finally send those men home. They went in as boys and never came home and so now is our time to send them back home to their loved ones."
Originally known as the Florida State Reform School, the facility operated from 1900 to 2011. There are reports as early as 1901 of boys being chained to walls and receiving brutal whippings.
Children as young as five were originally sent to the school for serious crimes. That changed later to include "Incorrigibility, truancy and dependency." They were segregated by race until the 1960's.
Rep. Williams said the exhumations will help start the healing process for families who had a loved one sent to the school, never to return.
"For the state of Florida to begin to close this chapter I think is important. And the work that the University of South Florida, without them this wouldn't be possible."
But there are very mixed feelings in Jackson County about the effort to exhume bodies from the school's property. Some residents are concerned about how the work will reflect on the community and they fear it could hurt their local economy.
Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, calls it a very difficult issue for Marianna, Jackson County and surrounding counties as well.
She said Dozier School was an integral part of the community for many years and provided many employment opportunities for residents.
Coley hopes the work moves quickly.
"Now that the decision has been that the remains need to be exhumed and moved and give the families an opportunity to relocate them if they so choose, then I hope it can be done quickly and without bringing any negative reflection on the community itself. Jackson County is a wonderful place to live and to raise children and to work and I certainly hope that it is not done in such a way to make this community look bad."
The first phase of USF's work at Dozier School will be done from Saturday, August 31 to Tuesday, September 3.
USF said the work will be a "closed research site" in respect to families and for safety reasons.
However, researchers say they want their work to be transparent so they will allow one videographer and one still photographer to have access to the burial site to record the effort to exhume bodies.
USF emphasizes the images will follow ethical guidelines and won't include "close-up images of skeletal remains." The photos and video will be distributed to news outlets twice a day so the rest of the world can monitor the search for boys buried decades ago.