USF researchers find more graves at Dozier School for Boys

12/10/12 Janelle Irwin
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Another 19 unmarked graves have been found at a north Florida boy’s reform school. Researchers from the University of South Florida are reporting findings based ground penetrating radar and soil chemistry to answer questions surrounding the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Glen Varnadoe is the nephew of a 13-year-old boy who died a little more than a month into his stay at Dozier.

“There was no burial plot log kept at this facility as there is at most penal facilities. There are burial plots that are easily kept. This one, for whatever reason, doesn’t have one. People seem to be scattered…”

The Dozier School in the Florida panhandle was open until 2011 after more than 100 years in operation. It closed after a 2009 investigation into abuse allegations.

“This was a facility that was known to take abusive action first. If you look at the DOJ reports even from 2010, it shows the facility had a systemic problem in training, had a systemic problem in the way they dealt with children. They were instructed to use force as a last resort and Dozier was specifically pointed out as using force as a first resort.”

The Vernadoe family was granted an injunction in October temporarily barring the sale of property at the south side of what used to be the Dozier campus. USF archeological and anthropological researchers think it’s likely that there is a second cemetery in that location based on the fact that records show 81 reported deaths at the school. Antoinette Jackson, an anthropologist on the research team said the prevalence of segregation during the time of the reported deaths also suggests the possibility of other burial sites.

“And so, one of the open items, or open questions is, is there another cemetery? Because the cemetery that has been found was located on really what was called the black side, or the north side of campus. So, it’s very unlikely … that that was the only cemetery.”

The research team calls the project restorative justice because it doesn’t necessarily seek criminal charges against people involved in abuse at the Dozier School for Boys. Instead the answers would give some much needed closure to people whose family members went missing. Glen Varnadoe just wants to find his uncle, Thomas Varnadoe’s body so he can bury his remains in a family plot. Vernadoe is anxious to find his uncle’s body because his other uncle, Joseph Vernadoe is the last living sibling who can offer DNA to identify the remains.

“I was fearful that he would spend eternity under a parking lot or an apartment complex and I don’t think that’s a proper burial for anyone, so my mission and our mission is to bring him home.

A group of former students at the school from the late 50s and early 60s known as the White House Boys have come forward with their own allegations. Robert Kiser, author of a book The White House Boys: An American Tragedy, said it was common for boys to be beaten until they were bloody.

“They soaked me Epsom salt for about a half an hour and then took me into what I consider to be surgery to remove my underwear and many boys had that done. Your underwear were actually beaten into your skin.”

Another founder of the White House Boys, Jerry Cooper, was sent to the school when he was 16 after running away from home and getting caught up in a police chase. Cooper has spoken out about abuse he not only endured, but witnessed and some of his retelling even involve boys dying. He said another 16-year-old named Edgar Elton was forced to play football in the sweltering summer heat despite a parent’s note informing school officials that he was medically unable.

“Well, we’re in that gym in July. It’s so hot in there you wouldn’t even believe … he made that boy get up and get back on his feet …he made one more run around that gym and he collapsed and died.”

The USF research team still has a lot of work to do to answer questions about what happened all those years ago at Dozier and whether or not any more boys are buried there. Erin Kimmerle who heads the team is recommending further fieldwork and excavation. She said right now, it’s difficult to tell if the number of possible graves represents how many people are actually buried.

“We have a good picture and a good window into it, but it’s limited as well. So, could some of the anomalies actually be two burials next to one another and what we’re detecting is one large anomaly? Yeah, it could…”

During their research the group didn’t uncover any actual skeletal remains. Archeologist Christian Wells said exhuming bodies may be an option at some point, but for now the excavations deliberately avoided disturbing any human remains.

“The excavations were very shallow – but after you get below the modern A horizon … you can see very clearly … it was enough for us to confirm the anomalies that we detected with a very shallow excavation.”

The USF team’s recommendations will be given to a number of groups including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Juvenile Justice and stakeholders like family members of former students at the school. Funding for any further research hasn’t been secured.

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