Bill Creating Dozier Memorials, Reburying Unclaimed Remains Heads To Gov. Scott

May 5, 2017

These crosses marked only a portion of the actual gravesites in the Boot Hill cemetery located on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys.
Credit University of South Florida

A bill creating memorials to remember the boys who died and were buried in unmarked graves on the Dozier School for Boys’ grounds is now heading to Governor Rick Scott. It’s part two of what the Florida legislature’s doing to help address the abuses that occurred at the school decades ago.

Over the course of a month, Florida lawmakers have heard horrifying testimony from those who say they survived the abuse at the now-closed Dozier School for Boys as well as its sister campus, the Okeechobee school.

It even moved several lawmakers to tears, including Rep. Cynthia Stafford (D-Miami).

“We heard men testify that when they were boys, they were taking into rooms, sexually assaulted—not by one, sometimes more than one, two, three men—they recall having on nightgowns with blood in the back from the abuse as well as from the 100 lashes and the 56 lashes that they got—one for just eating a berry off of a bush because he was hungry,” she recalled.

Both chambers of the Legislature have apologized to the Dozier survivors. And, the Florida House has already passed a bill to memorialize them as well as those who died due to the abuse.

A few years ago, University of South Florida researchers led by Erin Kimmerle unearthed 55 remains, hoping to match them with their living descendants. While several have been DNA matched, others remain unclaimed.

And, Stafford says it’s important to remember what happened, so it doesn’t happen again.

“One of those giving testimony, he said, ‘we took a 60 year-old-story and brought it out of the past and brought it into the present to bring justice to these victims.’ We commit to establish and have those monuments, so that we will never forget,” she added.

Stafford is co-sponsoring the measure alongside Representative Shawn Harrison. He says the bill follows the recommendations of the Dozier Task Force—which met last year.

“Unidentified or unclaimed remains should be reinterred in Tallahassee, with a location determined by DMS in an appropriate location and with the graves to be clearly marked. And, two memorials should be established: one on the Dozier property in Jackson County and one in Tallahassee, dedicated to the memories of the boys who lived and died at Dozier school as well as the 1914 dormitory fire victims.”

In 1914, a dorm fire occurred. So, the bill allows for the remains of those who perished in the fire to not only be reburied back on the Dozier grounds, it also memorializes the fire victims.

The creation of the Dozier memorials as well as the reburial of the unclaimed remains are expected to cost $1.2 million. The White House building—where survivors say a lot of the abuse occurred—and the Boot Hill Cemetery—where the remains were found—would also remain intact. And, the measure also allows for researchers to find more remains, if need be.

While the bill passed the House unanimously a few weeks ago, there was no Senate companion. And days after that vote, the House measure was later referred to a Senate committee—which never took up the bill even in the last week of Session.

The fate of the bill was in doubt. But, in a procedural move, the House measure was taken up on the Senate floor Friday. And, Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg)—who had sponsored the formal apology—says he’s grateful.

“Not only have we done a resolution this session that apologizes for the atrocities that occurred, we have also taken a further step and authorized an appropriation to give a respectful burial to the unidentified, unclaimed remains, not only from the fire, but from other deaths that occurred there at the property,” he said, on the floor Friday. “Thank you, Mr. President for this opportunity.”

Rouson had wanted to direct the Department of Environmental Protection to assess the toxicity of the Dozier property and clean it up, before handing it over to Jackson County. Researchers had found arsenic in the ground and asbestos in the buildings. But, he withdrew that change, so the bill wouldn’t be jeopardized.

And, with the House and Senate’s unanimous passage, the measure now heads to Governor Rick Scott.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.