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Nancy Smith

For Shame: Judge Heaps More Pain on Dozier Families

May 27, 2013 - 6:00pm

With its swamps and deep woods and regions of profound isolation, Florida has always been a place where bad things can happen without anybody finding out for years.

But there is no excuse for the culture of conscientious ignorance surrounding atrocities at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys over more than 100 years.

Now Judge William L. Wright has made it worse. The Jackson County circuit judge urged Attorney General Pam Bondi in a petition denial on Friday to "proceed with caution" on an investigation of Dozier's secrets --state-sanctioned barbarism, including flogging, sexual assault and, possibly, murder.

In filing the original petition on behalf of medical examiner Dr. Michael Hunter, Bondi wanted permission to exhume bodies from the Marianna cemetery and surrounding areas, where University of South Florida researchers believe there may be unmarked graves and unaccounted bodies of boys who died at Dozier.

Does Wright's denial have the attorney general wavering about proceeding at all? Bondi issued her reaction in two contradictory sentences:I remain committed to assisting with the efforts to help resolve unanswered questions regarding deaths at the Dozier School for Boys. In light of todays adverse ruling, we will be meeting with the interested parties and considering the next course of action to explore other avenues.

Other avenues? What other avenues are there besides a full-frontal, forensic attack to demand the truth? It will be interesting to find out what these other avenues are.

Basically, the judge was saying this: An attorney general and the medical examiner don't need my permission to dig up remains and perform autopsies, but even if I gave it, it wouldn't supersede due process or grant immunity if the exhumations were botched.

However well-reasoned Wright's petition response, the perception is going to be that Florida is covering up. It looks as if we're afraid of lawsuits. Afraid of families seeking"claims" bills for civil compensation. Afraid of the civil rights implications -- the majority of boys recorded as buried on the Dozier campus were black.

If we don't proceed, and let caution be damned, it looks as if we don't want to explain how a "concentration camp for little boys" could remain open for business, fully funded by the Florida Legislature, until 2011. And, by the way, it was closed then not so much because families of the deceased were crying out for an investigation as it was to prune the budget under Gov. Rick Scott.

How did more than half a dozen governors who inspected the place during the last century look the other way and allow the school to continue?

Dozier's own records show that more than 50 children were buried on the grounds, while more than 30 other bodies were sent elsewhere to be buried. But the school failed to record burial locations for 22 other children who researchers learned died on the site.

Judge Wright ended his ruling with a Pontius Pilate-esque quote cautioning Florida officials to heed a 1949 New York ruling, Currier v. Woodlawn Cemetery: "The quiet of the grave, the repose of the dead, are not lightly to be disturbed. Good and substantial reasons must be shown before disinternment is to be sanctioned."

I submit that more than 100 years of abuse and mysterious disappearances of children the state of Florida flat-out abandoned are pretty good and substantial reasons to get the shovels out.

Families of victims and victims themselves -- the "White House Boys," named for the building where they were taken to be disciplined -- have produced a horrifying picture of life at the 159-acre institution, particularlybetween 1914 and 1952.

But it isn't just for their sake that Bondi needs to push on for the truth. It's for our sake, too. Florida will never truly be able to put the Dozier School for Boys in the past until it gives up its secrets. All of them. Until it performs a system purge on what happened at this Panhandle reform school and how state agencies responsible for oversight over the years let it slide along, hear no evil, see no evil.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (228) 282-2423.

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