Grave excavation continues at reform school site

MARIANNA, Fla. — On the second day of an excavation project, University of South Florida researchers worked Sunday on two graves at a former reform school in the Florida Panhandle where students say they were abused decades ago.

The researchers continued the slow, painstaking process of unearthing remains in the hopes of identifying those buried at the now-closed Arthur G. Dozier School in the Panhandle. The digging and work will go on through Tuesday.

“We are making really good progress,” Erin Kimmerle, the USF anthropologist leading the excavation, said Sunday. Preservation of the remains in the first coffin were good, she said. Cranial and teeth fragments were found, along with coffin hardware such as nails and handles.

A second coffin found deeper underground will be opened later Sunday, Kimmerle said.

The remains of about 50 people are in the graves, she said. Some are marked with a plain, white steel cross, and others have no markings.

“Some are very decorative, which can help come up with a date,” she said.

Researchers also hope to learn how the boys died at the school, which opened in 1900 and shut down two years ago for budgetary reasons.

Former inmates at the reform school have detailed horrific beatings at the facility. A group of survivors who call themselves the “White House Boys” called for an investigation into the graves five years ago. In 2010, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ended an investigation and said it could not substantiate or refute claims that boys died at the hands of staff.

USF later began its own research and discovered more graves. The school worked for months to secure a permit to exhume the remains, finally receiving permission from Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet after being rejected by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who reports to Scott.

Researchers plan to return to the site after the holiday weekend. The remains will be taken to Tampa to be studied. DNA obtained will be sent for analysis to be matched to relatives. Ten families have contacted researchers in hopes of identifying relatives that might be buried at Dozier.

If matches are found, remains will be returned to the families.

Kimmerle said researchers were working on wet ground from recent rains, which is setting them back in their exaction. More rain was expected before Tuesday.

“We are a little concerned with that,” she said. “If it’s raining hard, you really can’t work and you would have to divert your energy to getting water out.”

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