MARIANNA — University of South Florida researchers began exhuming human remains of more than 50 students at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna on Saturday morning.
It’s the first of several excavations USF researchers have planned this year at the shuttered reform school, where over several decades, dozens of students were allegedly beaten, tortured, and sexually abused, according to some former students, who also said they believe other students were killed at the boys school, which was once the largest of its kind in the country.
Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, lead researcher in the project, said she hopes to have four to six graves fully excavated by Tuesday. Researchers had already determined Saturday that some of the remains were wrapped and buried in coffins. They believe the coffins were constructed in the carpentry shop on the Dozier School campus.
Researchers will use the remains to construct a biological profile that includes the age, sex and ancestry of the deceased.
“It’s everything about you that we can tell from your biology, and that gives us a picture of who the person was,” she said.
From there, researchers will cross-reference a list of Dozier students, then compare DNA samples to confirm the identity. Unidentified remains will be reburied on the Dozier School campus with a casket and marker.
Skeletonized remains will be examined for fractures and other damage to determine if violence had taken place. But whether those conclusions can be made depends on the preservation of individual remains, Kimmerle said.
Researchers believe the burial site contains the bodies of black Dozier School students, and suspect another campus burial for white students exists. The school was segregated until 1968. Kimmerle said Saturday that researchers likely won’t be able to confirm a separate burial site for white students until sometime this winter.
Several former Dozier School students and their relatives stopped by the campus Saturday morning to speak with reporters and USF officials. They described being beaten at a white concrete shed on campus known as The White House, where students were allegedly taken to be physically punished. School officials’ primary tool in the punishments, many former students have said, was a leather strap with a wooden handle. Johnny Lee Gaddy, 67, said Saturday he was beaten with the strap until he was “bleeding like a hog.” Other former students have said they were whipped until they passed out.
“They had no heart for children, no compassion for children,” Gaddy said.
Gaddy was sent to the reform school in the 1960s for truancy, as was 68-year-old Richard Huntly. Huntly said Saturday that he, too, was regularly beaten for behavior ranging from fighting to disobedience. Other beatings, he said, seemed to occur at random.
“I was just scared to death during that time,” Huntly said.
Huntly and Gaddy were with a group of former Dozier School students who believe they should receive financial restitution for their years of physical labor at the school, which was owned and operated by the state. The school “made slaves out of us,” Huntly said. He and other students regularly cut timber and sugar cane, and operated tractors. During one instance of such outdoor labor, Huntly’s toe was severed in an accident.
Another former Dozier school student, 67-year-old Roger Kiser, stood outside the school’s razor-wire fence on Saturday and said he’s become “a little numb” to his experience at the school.
“I’ll never forget being beaten at The White House,” he said.
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet voted earlier this month to allow USF to exhume the bodies. The project has received $190,000 in funding from the state and a $423,528 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Researchers have one year to exhume, identify and rebury human remains, as well as locate additional burials at the school.