The investigation at the Arthur W. Dozier School for Boys may be over, but Florida lawmakers want to make sure the state doesn’t forget the boys who lost their lives at the Marianna reform school decades ago.
Two bills -- SB 708 and HB 533, sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, would require the state to preserve historical resources and create a memorial for the victims at the Dozier School. The bill would also reimburse families up to $7,500 for funeral, reinterment and grave marker expenses for the next of kin for each child buried at the school.
On Tuesday, the bills passed through their first committees by a unanimous vote.
Opened in 1900, the Dozier School for Boys housed thousands of boys during its 111-year history. Some boys were sent to the school for trivial crimes like skipping school or for running away from home.
In recent years, the school became notorious for allegations of physical abuse, rape and even murder of young men living at the school.
Boys who had attended the school -- now grown men -- and their families demanded answers as to what really happened to their classmates and family members while they attended the juvenile reform school.
In 2012, a team of researchers from the University of South Florida began the exhumation process at Dozier. Nearly four years later, the team wrapped up their investigation, uncovering 55 graves and positively identifying 14 bodies. Seven families are currently still waiting for matches.
The moving stories of boys who lost their lives at the Dozier School captured the attention of state lawmakers and national politicians alike. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has been one of the most outspoken on the research process.
Last week, Nelson demanded the state of Florida apologize to the families of the Dozier boys.
"They and all the families of the ones that we know about and those that we don't know about, they deserve not only an apology, they deserve the heart-felt enormous grief that we should feel about this chapter of our Florida history," he said.
On Tuesday, another familiar face in Florida politics, former Gov. Bob Martinez, testified before lawmakers for the first time in many years to voice his support for the family members of the boys at the Dozier School.
Martinez recalled hearing about the Dozier School when he was a child. He said he remembered hearing boys would get sent off to Marianna if they acted up.
“You sort of grew up thinking, ‘That must be one sort of a hellhole,’” he said.
Martinez wasn’t the only one who grew up hearing Dozier horror stories. Sen. Joyner, too, remembered her classmates who spoke of atrocities committed at the school. Years later, Joyner heard similar stories from her own students when she worked as a teacher; the stories compelled her to act while serving in the state legislature.
“They personally related to me what happened there,” she told the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee. “My interest stems from knowing young men who had been to Marianna and then teaching some later.”
The bills would appropriate $1.5 million for the preservation of historical materials, the memorial and funds for the families of the victims.
The stories of the Dozier School have gathered widespread attention both across Florida and nationwide, with a documentary on the Marianna reform school set to be aired this fall.