The full scale of horrors at an infamous state-run boarding school in Florida is barely coming to light, but newly-discovered “anomalies” may help to uncover some of the terrifying events that took place there.
For 111 years, the Dozier School for Boys in Jackson County was a site where systematic abuse was committed against children, ranging from torture to rape and even murder. Until its closure amid mass public outcry in 2011, the institution for young public offenders was among the largest in the U.S.
And now workers hired to clean up a nearby fuel storage site have accidentally discovered 27 “anomalies consistent with possible graves” outside of the school’s Boot Hill cemetery, according to a letter by Governor Ron DeSantis.
The find has shocked historians and locals because forensic anthropologists had already discovered a number of improvised burial sites on the school property.
In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded its study of historical records with an estimate of 31 burials in the cemetery. When anthropologists from the University of South Florida investigated the property, they found an additional 24 graves that held the remains of 51 individuals, the majority of whom were boys who had been held in state custody.
The latest find happened in March after subcontractor New South Associates used ground-penetrating radar during a routine pollution cleanup.
According to their report, which fell into the hands of the Tampa Bay Times, the graves didn’t follow any particular pattern–as a formal cemetery might–and instead had a “randomness [that] might be expected in a clandestine or informal cemetery.” New South recommended that the area be treated as a graveyard subject to further investigation.
The 1,400-acre Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 before public pressure forced the state to shutter the institution. Local newspapers including The Tampa Bay Times had been reporting in-depth on the brutal regime of abuse and neglect at the school as well as a string of suspicious deaths.
Much of the reporting was due to a group of elderly men who called themselves The White House Boys, named such after a small cinder-block building where corporal punishment was ruthlessly meted out by guards who wielded a metal-weighted leather strap. The beatings were often extreme and fit a textbook definition of torture.
Speaking to WFTS, survivor Terry Burns said:
“It was a concentration camp for boys.”
Continuing, the now-elderly Burns–a member of The White House Boys–described the lingering trauma and terror he felt following his nine months at the school in the late 1960s:
“I’d always wake up and I’d, tears would be coming out of my eyes, my pillow would be soaked with tears just thinking about it because it was like I was there reliving that again.”
Burns has no doubt that more bodies lay underneath the school. He explained:
“We’ve always said there’s more dead boys on there … If they would scan that whole ground of that school, I guarantee they will find another 200 to 300 dead boys buried on them grounds.”
Bryant Middleton, another former student with the group, told Tampa Bay Times:
“We’ve been trying to tell the state of Florida that there’s more bodies out there for a long time … I’m in possession of a list of 130 some odd boys who died at the school or disappeared and whose last known resting place we can’t find.”
From its earliest years, the school was known for its shockingly horrendous treatment of children. In 1903, an investigative committee reported to the Florida Senate that children as young as six were locked in leg-irons “just as common criminals … We have no hesitancy in saying, under its present management it is nothing more nor less than a prison.”
Another committee reported in 1911 that children were “at times unnecessarily and brutally punished, the instrument of punishment being a leather strap fastened to a wooden handle.”
And while the first recorded burial at the school happened in 1914, forensic anthropologists are puzzled because the school’s history suggests that some of its earliest years were its most brutal, according to The Times.
Gov. DeSantis has requested that state authorities “develop a path forward” to understand the latest excavation and “ensure this issue is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care.”
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