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As Work On Dozier Winds Down, Researchers Continue Seeking Answers For Boys' Families

USF News
Surrounded by family, Robert Stephens speaks to reporters about providing his DNA that helped to identify his uncle and Dozier student, also named Robert Stephens.

After identifying the remains of another boy, University of South Florida researchers are continuing to look into finding answers for families looking for their loved ones buried on the grounds of the Dozier School for boys. Researchers say they’re doing the finishing touches on their work surrounding the North Florida reform school with a troubled past.

15-year-old Robert Stephens is the latest boy to be matched with a relative. In fact, it was the DNA of a nephew with the same name who helped to positively ID him.

The younger Stephens says even in 2013 when he provided the DNA sample, he had no idea he even had such a relative, or was even named after him.

“I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “I did not have clue. Literally, when I got here, that’s when I found out in 2013, when I saw my name on the board, that’s when I found out who I was named after, that day…”

And, since the Tuesday's press conference announcing the latest identification, Stephens said he’s learning more and more daily.

“In the past couple days, his age. I was just speaking to another relative last night,” he added. “She mentioned that he was stabbed in an altercation. So, I just learned that last night, and Dr. Kimmerle mentioned that today. So, it’s literally hour by hour, day by day, I’m learning more about my uncle, and some history in my family.”

Starting in 1936, a 14-year-old Robert Stephens was housed at the Dozier School for breaking and entering. It was supposed to be a two year sentence, but school records show he was fatally stabbed, just after his 15th birthday.

Still, his living nephew says he’s grateful that throughout this process he’s now come into contact with family he’s never known his whole life.

“So, it’s a great opportunity to be here,” continued Stephens. “And, also, I’m just kinda devastated at the same time to find out somewhat of the situations that he’d been through and what happened.”

He’s referring to how the now-closed Dozier School for Boys—which was open for more than 100 years—is surrounded by allegations of a history of abuse.  Stephens’ remains is one of 51 bodies researchers found buried on the grounds.

“I learned that from the outside when the kids first came in, it looked real nice,” he said. “You’ve got kids playing basketball, doing a bunch of outdoor activities, but once night fell, it’s a whole different story: beatings, starvation, and there was a particular building called the White House where you were a problem, they would take you there, and beat you severely.”

“Well, when you have boys where you have to put stitches in them because of a beating or you have to put them in a wheelbarrow because they can’t walk,” Robert Straley agreed. “That’s way over what should have happened as punishment. That’s way over the line.”

Straley is a member of the so-called White House boys who say they survived the abuse. Straley says one of the saddest things to him is that there are just some boys who will never be found.

“I really believe—and it’s just my personal belief—that there are graves that are over there that they’ll never find because of the early years, I’m not even sure they even bothered with a graveyard,” said Straley.

There’s a committee looking into where the reburial should take place. The Capital City of Tallahassee and even Marianna—where the boys were originally buried—have been suggested, but committee members are still in talks.

Straley says at the end of the day, those remains should be laid to rest where many people can pay their respects.

“Nobody really wants to see these boys go back into that ‘atrocity-laden ground,’ as Glen Varnadoeput it,” added Straley. “That just seems unthinkable. You know, it should be someplace in a park, in a city…where people can go touch and feel and interact with this monument. And, of course, boys were from all over Florida. So, it’s not like it was just in that general vicinity.”

Lead USF Researcher Erin Kimmerle says the reburial plan is coming together and should be ironed out by next year.

“So, in the coming months, we’ll be working to help raise funds to help cover the costs that the families will incur for reburial including Sam Morgan and Earl Wilson—who were previously identified, but have yet to be reburied. And, over the next year, we will work with this work group to draft a reburial and memorial proposal to present to the state next Spring,” said Kimmerle.

Kimmerle adds while they may be in the finishing stages of their work, the process is by no means over.

“It is our hope that we will continue to make identifications,” she added. “In the past couple of weeks, we’ve been able to find two additional families to sample and that search continues.”

And, Stephens has a few words of encouragement for families still looking for answers.

“Stay focused, stay in contact, and just stay in faith, and if there’s any other families out there, please give your DNA,” said Stephens. “But, don’t give up. Just stay patient, stay focused, and you’ll get it. It’ll happen, because it took me two years, but we’re here now.”

Stephens says right now, his family may be looking into whether to rebury his uncle in his original hometown of Quincy. Meanwhile, Kimmerle says a final report is due in January and the state has also agreed to extend the permit for her and her team’s work until January 31, 2016.

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.