ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The National Institute of Justice has awarded University of South Florida researchers a $423,000 grant to help with exhuming the gravesites located at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
The grant was announced Wednesday morning. It allows researchers to perform DNA testing and conduct investigations on human remains for identification. Starting this weekend, researchers from USF hope to start exhuming bodies from unmarked graves and perhaps return them to family members for a proper burial.
Former students and family members of the deceased say exhuming the remains might shed light on how the students died — and how they lived their final days at the school.
The school opened in 1900 and was shut down in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
Some former students have accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated but concluded in 2009 that it was unable to substantiate or dispute the claims.
Researchers said they have already used historical documents to discover more deaths and gravesites than what the law enforcement agency found; they have verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children — ranging in age from 6 to 18 — between 1914 and 1973.
Researchers received nearly $200,000 from state legislators to begin their project on the site 60 miles west of Tallahassee. The federal grant announced Wednesday will allow researchers to work with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in performing all of the DNA analysis. All of the data will be entered into the Combined DNA Index System and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, said Erin Kimmerle, an anthropologist and one of USF's head researchers on the project.
Once DNA is collected, the information will be entered into national databases in hopes of finding families of the boys. In some cases, researchers have found families and have collected DNA, which will make identification of remains easier.
Kimmerle said researchers can also use facial reconstruction on remains that don't yield DNA results. The research team will also try to determine a cause of death for each student.
Greg Ridgeway — the acting director of U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice — said such grants usually are given to law enforcement or medical examiners' offices to clear cold cases and identify unclaimed bodies.