TAMPA - The University of South Florida sent a strongly worded letter Monday to Secretary of State Ken Detzner, asking him to reconsider his decision not to allow the school to exhume bodies at a former state reform school in the Florida Panhandle.
The university's general counsel wrote in a letter that USF does not want to dig up the bodies at the Dozier School for Boys for research purposes - that it wants to unearth the remains so they can be properly disposed of. Many of the remains that have been found are in shallow, unmarked graves and some are adjacent to a garbage dump.
"USF researchers are not at Dozier to get ideas for a journal article," wrote Gerard Solis, the school's deputy general counsel, "but to return lost human remains to their families."
USF researchers have verified the deaths of two adult staff members and 96 children between 1914 and 1973 at the Dozier School, located about 60 miles west of Tallahassee. Records indicated that 45 individuals were buried on the 1,400-acre tract from 1914 to 1952 while 31 bodies were sent elsewhere for burial. That leaves at least 22 bodies unaccounted for.
The school was plagued by scandal almost since its inception; tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children have been documented.
The state Legislature has given the researchers $190,000 for the search and exhumation. In June, USF researchers took DNA samples from family members of boys who died decades ago at the school to try to help solve the mystery of which bodies were buried on the property.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi have backed USF's attempt to exhume the bodies.
On Monday, Nelson said USF is interpreting the law correctly.
"The state has ample authority here," Nelson said. "Their refusal to issue the permits is just a dodge. The response by USF makes hash out of the state's position."
Last week, Detzner told USF his department doesn't have the authority to grant the exhumation request.
USF said the remains are in danger of being destroyed and that Detzner is misinterpreting the law; Solis stated that the researchers have found unmarked burials and human remains outside of an established cemetery.
Solis added that the Division of Historical Resources - which is under the Department of State - has the authority to exhume human remains and grant permits to do so.
Another concern, Solis said, is that the state has also taken action to sell and redevelop the land.