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Lawmakers Hope Dozier Bill Will Help Healing

Evidence markers in a suspected grave in the Boot Hill cemetery on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in 2013.
Pool/Edmund D. Fountain
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A measure intended to help heal a community and people who suffered at a former reform school where the remains of 51 boys have been unearthed is headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.

The House voted 114-3 on Tuesday to approve a proposal (SB 708) that would allocate $1.5 million for the reburial of remains removed from the 1,400-acre site of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The bill would also establish plans for a memorial at the reform school, which operated from 1990 to 2011 in the Jackson County community of Marianna.

The governor's office hasn't indicated if Scott will sign the measure that Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called "a great step forward" to help those with "psychological scars" from hardships at the school.

Rep. Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat who is the House sponsor of the bill, said it is a "small gesture" intended to begin the healing process for former wards of Dozier and for the Marianna community.

"These boys that we placed in the state's hands deserved better than unmarked graves," Narain said. "Their families deserved better than to be told that they ran away. The restoration of human dignity begins with the passage of this bill."

Narain added that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice have found that "more than a tragedy happened at Dozier."

"In the eyes of any human with a heart and a soul, the unimaginable happened," Narain concluded.

The bill would provide up to $7,500 per family for funeral, reburial and grave-marker costs.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, and Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, voted against the proposal.

On Monday, Tobia introduced and later withdrew an amendment to reduce the per family payment to $2,000.

The Dozier funding has drawn support from former Gov. Bob Martinez and members of the state Cabinet.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said Tuesday "it's his prayer" that the grounds will become a memorial for reconciling the state's "dark history."

"I certainly have the deepest of pain to think that on behalf of the state that some atrocities went down there, and that people were harmed, young children. It hurts," Baxley said. "It's embarrassing to look at how evil we can be and how misguided we can be."

The bill would also create a task force that would make recommendations about an appropriate memorial for the site and how to rebury remains that are unidentified or unclaimed.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner or a designee would be chairman of the task force. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the House speaker and the Senate president would each appoint a member. Also, Attorney General Pam Bondi would appoint a relative of a boy who died at Dozier. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater would name an appointee who promotes the welfare of people who are former Dozier wards. Additional members of the task force would represent Jackson County, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and the Florida Council of Churches.

Jackie Schutz, Scott's spokeswoman, said in an email Tuesday the office is "reviewing" the proposal.

The Jackson County site had been put up for sale before University of South Florida researchers were allowed to conduct excavation work starting in 2013 because of accounts of violence and bodies left in unmarked graves at the reform school.

A 168-page report was presented to Scott and the Cabinet in January on the findings by the researchers. The report didn't verify any students were killed by Dozier staff, but outlined 51 sets of remains unearthed from an area known as the Boot Hill Burial Ground.

At the January Cabinet meeting, Putnam offered apologies to the generations of boys who suffered hardships at the reform school while saying a new use is needed for the land, whether recreational, educational or even for veterans' services.

"The status quo is just not an option," Putnam said in January. "It would make it worse for it to turn into a caricature of itself, some haunted juvenile prison that just breeds more rumors and mythology."

Copyright 2016 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida