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Tribune editorial: Unearthing a shameful past at Dozier School

TBO.com Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 05:16 PM

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USF researchers, using sophisticated archaeological methods, have dug into the cold earth of a reform school cemetery, and into the institution's sketchy history, to give the children buried there official attention long overdue. While 31 graves are marked, the investigators discovered 50 or more graves.

In a report released Monday, USF's Forensic Anthropology Laboratory presents Florida with a chilling portrait of how the state for years warehoused, tortured and enslaved children. While officially focusing on a cemetery called Boot Hill at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, the report goes much deeper, bringing to light old records, letters and news stories that raise questions about how something so wrong could have continued for so long.

There is no embellishing or guesswork. The researchers simply tried to document how many children and teens the school buried and what caused the death of each. Conflicting reports, omitted details and missing records show us a state that didn't much care what happened to these children.

Former inmates — they were not really students, as they were called — had earlier come forward to tell horrifying stories of abuse, whippings and mistreatments. Nothing found in the records or cemetery suggests they were exaggerating.

The school closed last year after 111 years of operation. It had opened in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School, and by 1901 complaints were being heard about the use of children as slave labor and of children chained to walls.

In the early years the population was limited by the fees charged. A county was billed $50 for each child it sent. In financial difficulty, school officials decided to drop the fee and make the children work to earn their keep.

Soon the school was making big profits in timber, bricks and cotton. The USF team discovered that children as young as 10 were put to work in phosphate mines and cotton fields under the state's convict lease program.

The more children they locked up and put to work, the more profit the school made. Rules were expanded to allow a judge to send anyone there, not just criminal offenders. Kids who skipped school, orphans and others whose parents couldn't support them found themselves in a nightmare of forced labor and corporal punishment.

Instead of giving the children a fixed sentence, the school was empowered to decide how long each young inmate needed to be held and worked. It became the largest reform school in the country. That fact alone should have triggered an investigation and review.

It isn't surprising that many children tried to escape. At least seven boys died trying. The report lays out the grim, minimal accounts: November 1932, Oscar Murphy, 15, escaped and was run over by a car. In April 1960, Robert Hewett, 16, escaped and died of gunshot wounds to the chest. In September 1961, Raymont Phillips, 17, escaped and died of a gunshot wound to the head.

Twenty children died within the first three months of being sentenced to the school. Children there died of flu, during surgery, from blood poisoning, from drowning and in fires.

These findings would be shocking enough had they been documented in a foreign land. But for children to have been subjected to such barbaric treatment in our state is sickening.

As we pointed out four years ago, whoever lies in that crude cemetery deserves the dignity of a full investigation into how they got there. And if they were victims of a crime, they deserve the full measure of whatever justice can be delivered.

USF's anthropology experts, with contributions by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Department and Tampa Police Department, have done valuable service. They have detailed what can happen to troubled or unwanted children when they are left in the care of secretive and unaccountable adults who wrongly assumed that the truth would stay buried forever.

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