The University of South Florida's investigation of the Dozier School for Boys is reaching a critical point, but developments continue to give researchers greater insight into what happened at the troubled reform school.
Dozier, located in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna, opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. For decades, there were rumors that school officials whipped, tortured and even murdered students. For the past few years, USF researchers, led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, have looked at the history and grounds of the school.
They’ve paid special attention to 51 sets of remains they exhumed two years ago from 55 grave shafts in an unmarked cemetery on school property.
On Tuesday, investigators announced they've identified a sixth set of remains as belonging to Robert Stephens. School records and his death certificate indicate Stephens, who was sent to the school for breaking and entering, was stabbed to death by a classmate, Leroy Taylor, in 1937. Jackson County Clerk's records show Taylor plead guilty to second degree murder charges later that year.
Unlike the previous identifications, which mostly came thanks to a DNA sample from a single descendent, samples from two of Stephens' relatives were needed to identify him.
One came from his nephew, also named Robert Stephens, who submitted a sample to authorities at a press conference at the university two years ago. Until then, he had no idea about this part of his history.
"So the story wasn't related to me that I was named after my uncle that had passed away at the school," Stephens said. "So up until when I got to USF (in 2013) and saw my name on the board as far as one of the people that was missing and deceased, that's when I found out that's who I was named after."
While Stephens is sad to finally know what happened to his uncle, he says at least now his family can rebury him. In addition, there's another welcome benefit that the younger Stephens never considered.
"If this wouldn't have occurred or Dr. Kimmerle and her colleagues and her staff wouldn't have got this project started, I would have never connected with the people that I'm connecting with now," Stephens said. "I would have never known another side of my family."
Among other developments announced Tuesday, Kimmerle and her team have received an extension to access the school grounds through the end of January. Originally their land use agreement was scheduled to expire later this week, but officials with the Department of Environmental Protection and state CFO Jeff Atwater extended that.
"This is ultimately a state project for all of Floridians and for the state and that's the sort of commitment it takes, so we're really thrilled to be working with them and to see that level of commitment there," Kimmerle said.
Kimmerle also announced that an award-winning documentary company, Part2Pictures, will make a two-hour TV documentary on the research. It is scheduled to air in 2016; a broadcast station has not been named yet.
And there are still questions how the dead will be honored. The team is working with the state and the Florida NAACP to create a reburial plan for the remains that might never be identified.
“A lot of times, people think of memorial, they think of a plaque or a marker; and that certainly can be a memorial," Kimmerle said. "But we’re thinking of it in a much broader sense and in a more transformative sense and that how do we take all this information and what’s been done, and learned, and experienced, and try to turn it into something positive and move forward.”
Investigators are scheduled to submit a final report to the state in January 2016.