Researchers' new focus is on identifying remains of 55 boys found at panhandle reform school

04/15/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Dozier School for Boys, Erin Kimmerle, Bill Nelson, David Gee


Researchers used skeletal remains to recreate what a Dozier student may have looked like.

photo by Photo courtesy USF

Researchers haven’t identified any of the remains exhumed from 55 grave sites found at the former Dozier School for Boys in Mariana Florida. But they are getting closer. Tuesday in Tampa, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson heard an update from the team trying to find out who the boys are so their remains can be returned to family members.

“Especially the families who don’t know what happened; don’t know [if] there was a crime committed, don’t know how their loved one died.”

The Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle was open for more than 100 years before being shut down in 2011 amid questions about treatment of students there. An investigation was dismissed because there wasn’t enough evidence to support claims that boys buried at the school died at the hands of employees.

“More and more of these White House Boys have started coming forth. The White House, as Dr. Kimerle and I visited for the first time a year ago, going into what, in effect, was a torture chamber.”

Those boys, now old men, have come stories with horrifying stories about being raped and beaten in a building they called the White House. But it can’t be proven. However, research led by USF’s Dr. Erin Kimmerle is uncovering some glimmers into what may have happened to these children.

“We’ve seen some examples of nutritional stress and health indicators that you sometimes see associated with poverty or biological stress.”

But because the remains of 55 children buried at the reform school are nearly a century old, researchers haven’t been able to identify specific causes of death. Of the dozen bodies analyzed so far, 7 of them have been identified as African-American. This isn’t surprising to Kimmerle.

“Well, we’ve always had a lot of reports from families and that was compelling to us as well as some of the historical documentation and knowing that, in fact, for the first 67 years the school was segregated led many to believe that there are additional burials.”

There were 24 more gravesites found than a Florida Department of Law Enforcement study estimated. Those uncovered were all found on the north side of the Dozier property. It’s suspected that any white children who died at the school would be buried on the south side. The team has more trips to the site planned for May and June, but right now Kimmerle says their focus is on identifying the remains uncovered so far.

“Since these are children, one of the most critical first steps is doing radiographic analysis of the teeth in order to determine age.”

Kimmerle received a grant last year to fund the exhumation and research of bodies and artifacts from Dozier. That grant is allowing Kimmerle and her team to use newer technologies to identify who the children are. They’re using a self-contained radiographic unit to take pictures of dental structure.

“So, imagine an oversized microwave and what it does is take a really high quality digital x-ray and allows us to see the root structure of the teeth to determine age which for this project is critical and just a much clearer, better image than standard radiograph.”

Kimmerle is also recovering DNA from the remains and sending samples to the University of North Texas for testing. Researchers are partnering with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to cross reference the DNA found in five of the bodies so far with DNA from relatives of boys who are thought to have died at the school. Sheriff David Gee says there are still 36 names of students the agency hasn’t been able to match with relatives.

“Times were different then. They were transient families. They were migrating into Florida for labor and doing other things. So, the problem that we have is identifying who, even some of our known names, identifying who the relatives are.”

Gee is asking people to let his office know about any leads to family members.

“That’s really our thing that we need to ask the public for help right now. Look at the list, the names, they’re published. If we would have any leads on any of the names of the persons we believe definitely are buried there or died during that period of time.”

Dozier students and parents

Researchers at USF have a permit to dig at Dozier until the end of August. U.S. Sen. Nelson says he’d support extending that and USF’s Kimmerle didn’t dismiss the idea either. But for now, she is continuing to focus on analyzing the remains and artifacts found.

“The next step in terms of how do we start to think about ultimately reburial and memorialization and educating the public and the students and everybody about what happened.”

Researchers are continuing to investigate tips from people who were sent to the school, worked there or have other access to information that could help identify more grave sites. They are also continuing to use ground penetrating radar to find graves. That technology isn’t always reliable though because trees can get in the way.

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