TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida officials are pondering what to do with the site of a closed reform school in the Panhandle where until recently researchers were combing the ground searching for unmarked graves and unclaimed bodies.
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna was shuttered in 2011 and some former students have accused authorities of both physical and sexual abuse. Researchers with the University of South Florida are scheduled to issue a final report on their findings on the school by the end of the year.
The looming end of the USF investigation prompted Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to ask what should happen to the roughly 1,400 acre site 60 miles west of the state capital. Atwater asked that Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials consider handing over the property to the state agency that manages the state's historical sites.
But Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has family in Jackson County, suggested Tuesday the site could be either be sold or used to help the nearby city of Marianna.
"We are painfully aware of the dark chapter that Dozier represents in our state's history and this is our opportunity to bring that to close, and start a new chapter, a brighter chapter," Putnam said.
But Charles Fudge, a former student at the school in the early '60s, told the governor and the Cabinet that the site should be a park or a memorial for the victims who endured abuse at the facility. Fudge asserts there is a still-undiscovered cemetery in what was the white section of the school when it was segregated. University researchers say they have been unable to locate it.
"Until they find the remaining bodies they should never let any kind of buildings be put on that property," said Fudge.
The school first opened in 1900 and initially was a home for children convicted of serious crimes. But according to researchers this was expanded to include minor offenses including truancy. Fudge said he was sent to Dozier when he was 12 for helping his brother steal money from a woman's purse while they were mowing lawns.
For at least a decade, some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn't substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed. Many former Dozier inmates from that era call themselves "The White House Boys" after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.
Records showed 31 burials at the Marianna school between its opening in 1900 and its 2011 closure for budget reasons. But USF researchers found the remains of 24 additional people. According to researchers, the school underreported deaths; didn't provide death certificates, names or details in many cases, particularly involving black boys; and simply reported some boys who disappeared as no longer at the school
It was state officials including Attorney General Pam Bondi who pushed to give researchers the ability to exhume remains from the site. Atwater said Tuesday the state should consider setting aside money to help reunite remains with families as well as preserve any artifacts from the site.