Bill address burials for Dozier School boys

OKEECHOBEE — Families of young boys who died while at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna may finally have some closure thanks to a bill introduced Thursday, Feb. 18, to the Florida Senate.

If passed, Senate Bill 708 (SB-708) would authorize the Florida Department of State (DOS) to reimburse the next of kin, or pay the provider or funeral home, up to $7,500 to bury those children whose bodies have been recovered from their unmarked graves at the Marianna school.

That money, states the bill introduced by Senator Arthenia Joyner (D-District 19) of Tampa, would also require the DOS to contract with the University of South Florida (USF) for identification and location of the next of kin.

The DOS would then notify the next of kin and make arrangements for payment or reimbursement of eligible expenses.

That money could be given to family members as a direct reimbursement or as payment made directly to a funeral home.

While the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) identified 31 graves at the school for boys during their 2008 investigation, USF anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her team have discovered and exhumed 55 bodies.

FDLE did not exhume any bodies.

A number of Marianna survivors have come to be known as The White House Boys. That moniker came from their being sent to a small, white concrete block building where they were forced to lie on a mattress soiled by the sweat, blood, vomit and tears of other boys who were sent there to be beaten by male staff members.

There was also a state reform school for boys in Okeechobee and some of the men who were sent there as young boys have come forward with similar stories of physical and sexual abuse. But, no student deaths can be directly attributed to that alleged abuse.

Detective Captain John Rhoden, of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), put together a team to search the grounds of the Okeechobee school on U.S. 441 N. in April of 2015. But after several days of searching, cadaver dogs did turn up any human remains.

Sen. Joyner’s bill also seeks the non-recurring sum of $500,000 from the state’s general revenue fund for the 2016-17 fiscal year that would allow the DOS to implement SB-708.

In addition, SB-708 bill would:
• clarify that USF will retain custody of all artifacts and human remains until they can be returned to the next of kin, or reburied or the DOS is ready to take custody of the artifacts for preservation purposes.
• require USF, and not the state, to identify and locate the next of kin and then notify the DOS.
• require the DOS to promptly notify the next of kin about payment provisions.
• add the governor and cabinet to the list of recipients of the February DOS report.

SB-708 would also direct the DOS to preserve historical resources and create a memorial for Dozier victims, and to locate eligible family members of the exhumed children by July 1, 2017.

However, a Jackson County group apparently wanted more of a say-so in that memorial as well as other artifacts uncovered at the Marianna school.

According to Bryant Middleton, a former White House Boy, that group wanted to put an attachment onto Sen. Joyner’s bill that would allow Jackson County to keep all evidence found at the school, as well as the rights to the memorial.

“It would all be held in Jackson County until they could piecemeal them out,” said Mr. Middleton, in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

That attachment, however, fell to the wayside.

Mr. Middleton, who was sent to the school in 1958 at the age of 13, has been asked to speak to the Fredric G. Levin School of Law at the University of Florida in Gainesville about his experiences at Marianna. He has also been asked by the college to teach history classes about what went on at the Dozier school.

Mr. Middleton, a retired U.S. Army Ranger captain, said he was taken to the White House at least six times between 1958 and 1960.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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