New investigation puts deaths at nearly 100 since 1900 – many young, black males sent to the institution for minor infractions
The scale of abuse at a notorious youth residential school in Florida has been laid bare with the release of a report by investigators who say they have evidence of almost 100 deaths at the institution.
Investigators say they believe more graves are yet to be uncovered at the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, which closed a year ago following revelations of the widespread physical and sexual abuse of youths sent there since early last century.
It means the enormity of the outrage, in which survivors have told gruesome stories of regular beatings, rapes and even murders by staff members, is much greater than reported by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2010, when the agency announced the presence of 31 grave sites.
"We found nearly twice as many burials as were thought to exist, but many of them had been lost in the woods under brush and trees," said professor Erin Kimmerle, head of a team of anthropologists and archaeologists from Tampa's University of South Florida called on to look into deaths at the reform school from 1900 to 1960.
"The cause and manner of death for the majority of cases are unknown. Where causes could be documented, the most common were infectious disease, fires, physical trauma and drowning."
Many of the victims were young black males sent to the harsh reform school for often minor infractions such as truancy or "incorrigibility". Kimmerle's team also studied what little historical documentation and burial records survived and found that deaths commonly followed escape attempts or occurred within three months of a new "inmate" arriving there.
"No understanding of the Florida State Reform School over the course of its history can be understood without consideration of the impact and implications of segregation, particularly those relating to criminal justice," she said."The majority of boys committed to the school and that died there were African American."
According to their report, the team found records showing 45 individuals buried on school grounds between 1914 and 1952, with 31 bodies sent elsewhere for burial. There were 22 more cases in which no burial site was listed.
Of the 98 deaths they confirmed, two were adult staff members and the rest children aged from six to 18.
Despite the growing scale of the scandal, and graphic recent accounts of life at the school from those who once attended, no charges are expected. Teachers who worked there are mostly long dead, and the FDLE announced two years ago that it was unable to substantiate claims that deaths were caused by school staff or that any staff members abused boys.
The university's report, however, will now be submitted to state authorities for review and possible further investigation. The team will continue to work at the site, having won permission from Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the historic land.
"Even at the time that recorded deaths occurred, dating back to 1914, multiple investigations and reports summarised different accounts of who died and the surrounding circumstances," the report concluded.
"Many family members and witnesses believe children died under suspicious or questionable circumstances. Therefore uncertainty, speculation and folklore regarding these deaths are prevalent today.
"Given the lack of existing documentation and the incomplete recording of information, many questions persist about who is buried at the school and the circumstances surrounding their deaths."
Survivors call themselves the "White House Boys" after a small white building in the 1,400-acre site where children as young as five were chained to walls or tied to a bed and beaten. "There's just too many stories," one survivor, Roger Kiser, said in an interview with NPR earlier this year.
"I know of one that I personally saw die in the bathtub that had been beaten half to death. I thought he'd been mauled by the dogs because I thought he had ran. I never did find out the true story on that.
"There was the boy I saw who was dead who came out of the dryer. They put him in one of those large dryers."
Jerry Cooper, 67, told NPR that some of his classmates in the 1950s and 60s had committed no crimes. "A lot of orphans were there that did not have places at times, and they were sent to Marianna," he said.
"We had many, many boys who was there for smoking in school, that were incorrigible. We weren't bad kids. We might have needed help in some respect. But that wasn't the place to find it."
Dozens more who went to school have come forward with similar tales of murder, torture and brutality but no criminal case has ever been made, and a Leon County judge dismissed a civil class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of the victims in 2010 because the statute of limitations had expired.