From its opening in 1900 until 2011, the Florida School for Boys, a reform school in the panhandle town of Marianna, was an open campus of about 1400 acres with a reputation for abuse, torture, and even the murder of its residents by staff members. Also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, former residents have said that they were brutally beaten, witnessed the rape of boys by staff, and saw students taken away to be beaten and then never return. Closed in 2011, no one knows how many boys “disappeared” while attending the school. Some experts say there is evidence of nearly 100 bodies buried on the property. In August 2013, the Florida Legislature approved the exhumation of the missing boys’ bodies, and on Labor Day weekend, the digging began.
Florida Reform School Was Notorious
For years, men who had been sent there as young boys have told incredible stories of horror and heartbreak. Over 300 have spoken out about their experiences at the reform school in the 1950s and 1960s. A group of elderly men now, many in their 60s and 70s, they are certain that some of their schoolmates died as a result of the abuse they received. Some family members never saw their son or brother alive again after arriving at the school. One woman, whose older brother died there more than 70 years ago, says he was buried before her family could even view his body. She says they never believed the school’s version of events, which claimed the 14 year old had crawled under a building and had been killed.
Bones, Teeth, and Artifacts in Every Grave
In 2009, an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times prompted the governor’s office to order a state investigation. Until then, the state had taken the school’s side of the story. Glenn Hess, the state attorney for the district that includes the school, has never opened any criminal investigations into the institution. Nevertheless, officials have been working to find remains. Originally estimated at 36 bodies, researchers have announced the discovery of 19 more graves than had been initially expected. The team in charge of exhuming the bodies says it has recovered bones, teeth, and numerous artifacts in every burial site. They are using ground-penetrating radar to locate the missing bodies. They then compare samples with DNA collected from family members to determine who specifically is buried there, their ages, their ancestry, as well as the timing and circumstances of their deaths.
55 Boys Exhumed So Far
According to state records, 55 missing victims from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys have been recovered. At the time of its closure in 2011, the school was a fenced-in, high-risk residential facility for boys aged 13 to 21. Sentenced there by a court, the average length of stay for the reform school’s final 100 residents was 9 to 12 months. For a time, the Dozier school was the largest juvenile reform institution in the country: a ponderous state-run facility where a young boy had to be very careful and where you didn’t see, hear, or say anything. If you did, you were liable to disappear in the middle of the night.
- Chappell B. 55 bodies exhumed at reform school site in Florida. NPR website. January 28, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/01/28/267899476/55-bodies-are-exhumed-at-reform-school-site-in-florida.
- Man recalls horrors of Florida reform school. WBUR website. August 21, 2013.
- Nuwer R. Forensic experts have found 55 bodies buried at notorious reform school. Smithsonian website. January 31, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/forensic-experts-are-piecing-together-past-horrors-notorious-florida-school-boys-180949554/.
- Wu T. Fifty-five bodies, and zero trials, at the Florida school for boys. New Yorker website. January 30, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/01/prosecutors-are-failing-the-victims-of-floridas-notorious-reform-school.html