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Dozier School for Boys: What’s Next For Panhandle Property With Troubled Past?

Michael Spooneybarger

A group of researchers recently won state approval to exhume bodies buried on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. But, some wonder what happens next?

A Troubled Past

John Gaddy is a much older man today, but as a boy he was sent to the North Florida reform school known as the Dozier School for Boys.

“When he pulled up at the reformatory, it looked so beautiful, but it was later when he put me on the black side, I began my hell,” said Gaddy.

And it was there, Gaddy says he suffered beatings that left him bloody and even saw severed hands on the property.

That’s why he says he was relieved when Governor Rick Scott and the rest of the Florida Cabinet gave their approval Tuesday to University of South Florida researchers who want to exhume the bodies of boys believed to be buried on the grounds.

Moving Forward

“Well, they [Florida Cabinet] did the right thing,” said Robert Straley.

Straley, like Gaddy, says he survived similar abuse. The 66-year-old is also one of the White House Boys, a group of older men who claim they were abused in the same square building many years ago and who brought the issue to light.

“And, we realized the bigger picture. I think it was really about finding those boys and getting them up out of the darkness of being buried like that, unmarked, and getting them into the light. And, that’s the way, that it should be,” Straley added.

And, Attorney General Pam Bondi agrees. She was instrumental in getting the researchers’ request on the Florida Cabinet’s agenda after several failed attempts to get state approval to exhume the bodies.

“I’ve heard a bunch of comments from people saying leave well enough alone, but I’m not about to do that. This is our history. These people deserve answers and we’re going to give them those answers,” said Bondi.

Providing those answers to the families of the missing boys is the main goal of the dig. It’s set to begin later this month, at the direction of USF lead researcher Erin Kimmerle.

“And, then, moving forward in terms of field work, we’ll be doing two things. 1) Continuing to search some additional areas for burials that we’re currently in, and then 2) those burials that we have identified will go back and start to excavate.”

About 100 boys are believed to be missing, and researchers have so far identified about 50 unmarked graves on the property. Florida lawmakers gave the researchers $190,000 to continue their work and the Florida Cabinet approved the researchers' request through August of next year. In that time, more lost families must be located and DNA gathered from the graves.

The Future of the Dozier Property?

Some, like Bill and Valerie Alexson, hope the land will soon be up for sale again.

Last year, the state put the land up for sale, with bids starting at $300,000. But loved ones of the boys who disappeared got a judge to delay the sale until the researchers could finish looking for the graves.

As a potential buyer, Valerie says while she understands the situation, she hopes to turn the land into a mentoring venue for kids who age out of the foster care system.

“And, we can go anywhere to get a property, but the Dozier property has all the buildings already there. So, it would be perfect. And, it also has 60 vacant acres, where we can build a state of the art sports facility, dormitories…,” said Valerie.

She and her husband would also like to work with the affected Dozier families, including putting up a memorial on the property and allowing former Dozier residents to mentor kids as well. But, she says that can only happen if the state sells the land to her, which she hopes will happen soon.

“So, if the state holds it up another year, if they don’t make an adjustment, I think it’s going to go on for years and years and years. They’re going to keep digging, and investigating. So, we’ll see what happens. It’s unfortunate but, if there’s any way they would let us buy that Southern campus, it would be wonderful, but it’s totally up to the government," Valerie added.

Meanwhile, Paula Johnson, a Syracuse University law professor who’s been tracking similar issues around the country, says neither reclamation of the land nor legal challenges can start before the researchers complete their work. 

“And, then what happens in the legislative and the courts system. All of those things and any other avenues to rectify the situation is what is going to be called for,” said Johnson.

And Johnson says Florida isn’t alone.  She says other states have stories similar to Dozier’s, and that could mean Florida serves as a model – both for people to tell their stories and for law enforcement to handle the consequences.

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

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.