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Notorious Florida reform school scrutinized

Investigators dig for bodies amid call for answers

MARIANNA, Fla. — Nobody is quite sure how many boys’ bodies lie beneath the grounds of the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, or which one is Thomas or Owen or Robert.

Nobody is quite sure how most of them died — the cause is often listed as ‘‘unknown’’ or ‘‘accident’’ — or why a great number were buried with such haste.

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The scattered graves bear no markings: no names, no loving sentiment. The only hint of cemetery are the white crosses that the state planted in the 1990s, belatedly and haphazardly.

From the time it opened in 1900, as the state’s first home for wayward children, until it closed in 2011, as a residential center for high-risk youths, Dozier became synonymous with beatings, abuse, forced labor, neglect, and, in some cases, death.

It survived congressional hearings, state hearings, and state investigations. Each one turned the spotlight on horrific conditions, and little changed.

But now, spurred on by families of the dead boys and scores of former students — now old men — forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida have spent the last year using sophisticated radar equipment to search for answers beneath the 1,400-acre campus.

Decades after some of the worst abuses, former students have come forward to talk of brutal and repeated beatings; the families of some of the dead want dignity for those they lost.

‘I want them exhumed. I want them examined. I want to see if potential crimes were committed.’

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The crosses, they say, are an afterthought. They want to know more — where the children are buried and how they died, and whether the deaths were accidental, intentional, or simply the result of illness. And they want the bodies brought home.

‘‘What happened, happened, and I am willing to forgive,’’ said Glen Varnadoe, whose uncle Thomas was sent to the school in 1934 after he was accused — falsely, the family says — of stealing a typewriter from a neighbor’s yard in Brooksville. Thomas was declared dead of pneumonia a month later. ‘‘But I want my uncle’s remains, and I want to return him to his rightful place, next to his mother. He was 13. He didn’t do anything but walk across a backyard.’’

The anthropology team has focused largely on Boot Hill, which during the segregation era was a documented cemetery on the African-American side of campus. So far, the team has located 50 grave shafts there, 19 more than a 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation said existed.

And with the help of school, state, and historical records, they have counted at least 98 deaths dating from 1913 to 1960.

Their search was stymied last year when the state tried to sell the property. But a court order halted that. The team now has permission from the state to keep searching.

Dr. Erin Kimmerle, who is leading the team, said she believed more boys were probably buried at the school.

It is highly unlikely, she said, that black and white children at the school, in northern Florida, would have been laid to rest in the same cemetery before desegregation, which means that white boys, like Thomas Varnadoe, may be buried elsewhere.

Documents and witnesses make mention of other burial spots, but none is identified.

Some families of the dead want their boys found, exhumed, and brought home. The state and the district medical examiner’s office, which can exhume decades-old bodies if the deaths appear suspicious, are still considering whether to grant permission.

‘‘Where there is smoke, there is fire,’’ Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who also urged the Justice Department to get involved, said at a recent news conference with two families. ‘‘I want them exhumed. I want them examined. I want to see if potential crimes were committed.’’

Almost from the moment it opened as the Florida State Reform School, there was a steady stream of reports of abuse, indentured servitude, crowding, and neglect.

Accounts surfaced early on of children as young as 6 chained to walls. Fierce whippings were common. Children were forced to pick crops, make bricks, and print paper, all to profit the prison and other businesses, records show. A fire in 1914 killed eight boys who had been locked in a room. Flu epidemics killed others. Some runaways were shot.

The beatings continued well into the 1960s. When Governor Claude Kirk made a surprise visit in 1968 to inspect the decrepit school, he said, ‘‘If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you’d be up there with rifles.’’

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