By GARY FINEOUT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Seeking to close a dark chapter of Florida's past, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure that would pay to rebury the bodies of students who had been exhumed from the site of a now shuttered reform school in the Panhandle.
The bill signed Wednesday takes the first few steps in dealing with the legacy of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which is 60 miles west of Tallahassee and which closed in 2011. Some former students — many of them now elderly — have accused school officials of abuse.
The University of South Florida late last year wrapped up a multiyear investigation in which it exhumed bodies and human remains that had been buried on the property.
The new law requires the state to pay up to $7,500 to families for funeral and reburial expenses. It also would require officials to preserve records, artifacts and remains found on the school site. Lastly, the legislation would create a task force charged with devising plans for a memorial and figuring out what to do with any unidentified or unclaimed remains.
"This law finally ends a tragic chapter in Florida's history," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat and one of the bill sponsors. "It buries the dead with dignity and establishes a permanent reminder so that the atrocities the children endured at Dozier are neither forgotten nor repeated."
The school, which opened in 1900, initially was a home for children convicted of serious crimes. But researchers say it was expanded to include minor offenses including truancy. For at least a decade, some former students from the 1950s and 1960s accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn't substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed. The final university report concluded that nearly 100 people, including two adult staff members, died at Dozier between 1900 and 1973.
But the records are incomplete, and in some instances there are no records of where people were buried. According to researchers, the school underreported deaths; didn't provide death certificates, names or details in many cases, particularly involving black boys; and simply reported some boys who disappeared as no longer at the school. One 16-year-old in 1960 died from gunshot wounds by "person or persons unknown."
The new law does not answer the question of what should happen with the school site. Former students and business and political leaders in Marianna have been at odds over whether the roughly 1,400-acre site should remain closed or whether some of the land should be handed over to the city.
Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for the state agency that will be responsible for carrying out part of the new law, said "right now our focus is helping affected families and creating a memorial." Beatrice said state officials will consult with legislators and USF "on the next steps to take," which includes setting up the Dozier task force. The new law gives the task force until October to come up with recommendations.
(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)