The state of Florida came a step closer Tuesday to formally apologizing for the abuse of hundreds of children over the course of a century at the state-run Dozier School for Boys.
Members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted for a resolution expressing regret for the treatment of the boys at the reform school in the Florida panhandle. At least 55 graves have been identified after University of South Florida anthropologist Erin Kimmerle led a team that investigated neglected burial grounds on the campus.
Using DNA samples from the remains and from family members, the research team successfully identified seven of the 51 sets of remains exhumed from 55 unmarked graves in a cemetery at the Marianna reform school. They also have presumptive identifications of 14 more sets.
The resolution was introduced by State Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.
"Dr. Kimmerle and USF - them dry bones that you have unearthed yet live and have moisture because of the tears and the testimony of the living, who are living with psychological and in some cases physical injuries," he said.
State Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Melbourne voted for the resolution.
"As I was sitting here, I couldn't help but think what if this had been my child?" she told the committee. "I was born in 1956 and I was living at the time this was going on. And it's hard for me to even imagine that we treated other human beings this way in a school that the state had total control over.
"It just goes to show how wrong we can be from our past," she said. "But what the opportunity we have is to make it right, and to never forget what had happened. So that it never happens again."
One of the victims who addressed the judiciary committee was retired Army Ranger Bryant Middleton. He was brought to the Dozier school as a child in the late 1950s. Middleton told the committee he was sexually abused as a child, by a medical doctor and a child psychologist. He recalled one night when the school supervisor got wind that he and a friend were planning an escape. He was brought to the infamous "White House," where the beatings took place.
"I lost count at 56," he said of the beatings. "I passed out. I awoke in the other room laying on the bed with a bloody nightgown and blood running down my leg - as a child. I've told you that I've seen a lot of horror in my lifetime, I have. The battles of Dozier, though, are the ones that hurt me the worst. Destroyed my life."
Middleton said "I would rather be sent back into the jungles of Vietnam, than to spend one single day at the Florida School for Boys."
Historical records show that nearly 100 boys ages 6 to 18 died at the school between 1900 and 1973. Many are not identified and were buried in unmarked locations.
The school grounds and buildings have been vacant since the state closed Dozier in 2011.
Kimmerle spoke at a press conference after the resolution was adopted.
"Today is not just about an apology. It's also a call to action. It's important that we continue to research homicides and violent crimes against individuals, to educate future generations, in order to prevent similar crimes and atrocities from happening," she said. "Through the memories of the victims of Dozier, I think that we'll be able to pursue justice even decades later, and find those who are responsible."