TAMPA — The remains of 55 people have been unearthed from a graveyard at a former reform school with a history of abuse, researchers said Tuesday.
University of South Florida researchers began excavating the graveyard at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in September. The dig finished in December.
Official records indicated 31 burials at the Marianna site, but researchers had estimated there would be about 50 graves.
All the bodies found were interred in coffins either made at the school or bought from manufacturers, said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist leading the university’s investigation. Some were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.
Now, researchers will try to identify the remains and determine the causes of death. The bodies were buried sometime between the late 1920s and early 1950s, researchers said.
“We know very little about those who are buried,” Kimmerle said.
They found buttons, a stone marble in a boy’s pocket and hardware from coffins. Researchers recovered thousands of nails and a brass plate that read, “At rest,” likely from a coffin lid.
DNA from the remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for analysis. Twelve families have contacted researchers in the hopes of identifying relatives that might have been buried at the school, and officials hope dozens of other families will come forward and provide DNA samples to compare with the remains.
Ovell Krell of Auburndale is one of the relatives who already has come forward, hoping to find out what happened to her brother. George Owen Smith was sent to Dozier when he was 14 in 1941, and he was found dead a couple of months later. His family never recovered his body, and Krell hopes to claim his remains and bury them with their parents at a family plot in central Florida.
“We are hoping for closure,” she said.
Another dig is scheduled next month. Nearby residents and former employees and inmates at the northwest Florida school are helping investigators determine other potential burial sites, Kimmerle said.
Dozier opened in 1900 and closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that that it could not substantiate or dispute the claims.
The University of South Florida secured a permit to exhume the remains after beginning its own research and verifying more deaths and graves than documented by law enforcement.