Photo by University of South Florida Department of Anthropology via WUSF
Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday signed a bill addressing what one lawmaker described as a "dark chapter" in Florida history at a now-shuttered reform school.
The measure (SB 708), one of 14 bills Scott signed into law Wednesday, will allocate money for the reburial of remains removed from the 1,400-acre site of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. The bill also establishes plans for a memorial at the reform school, which operated from 1900 to 2011 in the Jackson County community of Marianna.
"This law finally ends a tragic chapter in Florida's history," Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a prepared statement. "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."
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said the legislative effort is a way to say "we're sorry."
"It's a dark chapter in Florida's history," Williams said. "We sent young men there to be reformed. It was a reform school. We didn't send young men there to die."
A 168-page report by University of South Florida researchers was presented to Scott and the Cabinet in January on excavations at the site. The report didn't verify any students were killed by Dozier staff, but outlined 51 sets of remains unearthed from an area known as the Boot Hill Burial Ground.
"There were young men, black and white, went in thinking they were going to be reformed and come back home, and they never made it out," Williams said.
The law provides up to $7,500 per family for funeral, reburial and grave-marker costs and calls for the creation of a task force that would make recommendations about an appropriate memorial for the site and how to rebury remains that are unidentified or unclaimed.
Rep. Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said in a prepared statement the law is intended to provide "a measure of justice."
"These boys and these families should not be forgotten, nor should they be further victimized," Narain said. "This bill, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, represents the right thing to do and will also serve as an ongoing reminder that such injustice should never happen again."
Three lawmakers —- Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, and Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven —- voted against the proposal. Tobia had sought to reduce the per-family payment to $2,000.
The Dozier funding drew support from former Gov. Bob Martinez and members of the state Cabinet.
During the January Cabinet meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam offered apologies to the generations of boys who suffered hardships at the reform school while saying a new use is needed for the land, whether recreational, educational or even for veterans' services.
"Those who spent time at Dozier and the loved ones of those who died at Dozier have for far too long had their history cloaked in secrecy," Putnam said in a prepared statement Wednesday.