MidPoint: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys

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Noted USF Forensic Anthropologist Erin Kimmerle joined MidPoint Wednesday to discuss her new book, “We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys,” and her career as a forensic investigator of mass graves in war zones in Bosnia and Peru. Kimmerle discussed the investigative tools available to a forensic anthropologist and explained how she researches and analyzes the information and data available now to be able to identify unidentified bodies and buried skeletal remains, often many years after the deaths have occurred. She brought those tools and her skills to a multi-years-long investigation of undocumented deaths at the Dozier School for Boys, a 111-year-old boys’ “reform school” located in Marianna, in the Florida Panhandle which finally closed in 2011. You can listen to the interview of Erin Kimmerle here: https://sound.wmnf.org/sound/wmnf_220706_100600_12newsW1_423.MP3

Kimmerle first learned about Dozier and the bodies there from survivors of the abusive treatment boys endured at the Dozier School. Former residents detailed horrible stories of abuse and exploitation at Dozier. Families of missing boys claimed that there were undocumented burials on the school grounds, more than those buried in Boot Hill, a small cemetery on the property with 31 marked graves. She volunteered to help identify these bodies for a number of families, but first, she had to fight to be able to have access to the grounds of the school to conduct her investigation. Locals, many of whom worked at the Dozier School in the past, opposed her investigation and it was initially difficult to determine who or what state agency even had the authority to grant access to the Dozier School land. There was significant political resistance that she first had to overcome to determine who might be buried in unmarked graves, and how they died.

The school had been a major employer in Marianna and some people affiliated with the school still lived there. They were not anxious to have an investigation of what went on there proceed. Kimmerle noted, “it(Dozier) was run by the farmers and landowners who ran the convict lease system. There really wasn’t a teacher there for the first 14 years….Looking at juvenile centers today, they find the same thing. Really underpaid, untrained staff,” and the potential for abuse in the juvenile justice system is still rampant.

With her book, newly published by Harper Collins, Kimmerle wants people to consider different perspectives on reform, punishment, and rehabilitation. “If an 8-year-old does commit a murder, how should we, as a society, deal with that? Should we put them in months of isolation, severe punishment, and hope for the best? Or, are there other ways in which we can try to work with that individual and help them or rehabilitate them?”

Kimmerle is also the developer and coordinator of an exhibit, “The Art of Forensics,” which showcases a number of missing persons rendered in photographs and facial reconstructions, both digital and clay, which she stages with law enforcement in an effort to expose more people to these missing persons in the hopes they will be recognized by someone. The next exhibit is scheduled for August 27th and 28th at The Vault in downtown Tampa.

Kimmerle’s work at the Dozier School is also the basis for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, who blurbed her book, stating “In a corrupt world, Kimmerle’s revelations are as close as we’ll come to justice.”

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