TAMPA - Researchers and lawyers from the University of South Florida said Tuesday they believe a state official misunderstood his authority when he denied them permission to exhume bodies from the grounds of the former Dozier School for Boys and the researchers will press their case for a permit.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Monday told USF he did not have the jurisdiction to allow the project at the Panhandle school, where former wards said they were beaten and abused and investigators have discovered what they think are unmarked graves.
USF has been granted permits to conduct surface experiments at the site, but a team led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle and supported by the state Attorney General's Office now is seeking to dig up graves. Kimmerle has conducted research at grave sites around the world.
USF said in a statement that representatives met Tuesday with members of the attorney general's office "and mutually agreed to follow up" with Detzner. On Monday, the secretary of state told the researchers that "under Florida law, human bodies are not objects to be dug up for research purposes," but only in very narrow circumstances such as a criminal investigation.
USF is arguing that the discovery of human remains requires state action under Section 872.05 of Florida Statutes, which states, "It is the intent of the Legislature that all human burials and human skeletal remains be accorded equal treatment and respect based on common human dignity without reference to ethnic origin, cultural background, or religious affiliation."
USF expressed concern over potential remains being destroyed.
"We fully intend to present our position to Secretary Detzner in the near future," USF said in its statement.
The attorney general's office issued a statement confirming the meeting with USF, saying staffers "will continue to meet with them and support efforts to obtain answers to the many questions surrounding the deaths at the Dozier School for Boys."
Stories of severe beatings and disappearances at the school, also previously known as the Florida State Reform School, have circulated for decades. It opened in 1900 and was closed in 2011.