The Florida Legislature took its first big step toward addressing decades of torture and abuse at a former state-run reform school by committing $500,000 on Tuesday toward reburying the remains of children found in unmarked graves.
Families of the more than 50 children found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys would be eligible for up to $7,500 each to give proper burials for the children and find family members of those yet to be identified. In addition, the state would create a task force to begin making a decision on what type of memorial should be erected at the school in Marianna, a small North Florida town just west of Tallahassee.
The Florida House voted 114-3 for the bill sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa. The same bill passed the Senate last week. The Legislation now goes to Gov. Rick Scott for his review.
"More than a tragedy happened at Dozier," Narain said during an impassioned plea for the legislation on Tuesday. "In the eyes of any human being with a heart and a soul, the unimagineable happened at Dozier."
Narain said on Tuesday that the boys put in the hands of the state deserve better than unmarked graves and their families better than false stories that their children ran away, as many were told.
Stories have swirled for decades about the harsh conditions at the school, open from 1900 to 2011. In 2012, University of South Florida anthropologists began investigating burial grounds on the campus, where pipe crosses marked what was said to be the final resting place for 31 boys who died at the school. Using ground penetrating radar and excavation techniques, they found 55 graves, many in the woods outside the marked cemetery. Remains were found buried under trees and brush and under an old road.
USF anthropologists presented a report to the Florida Cabinet in January that showed most of the deaths that occurred were because of illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.
"This is a start toward that closure for the families who lost someone," Narain said on the House floor during debate over the bill.
While burying the remains of the dead children at a state-run school would not seem controversial, the legislation's route through the process showed there is questions around the legislation that could hinder future efforts to compensate people who survived their tenure at the school. State Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, pressed Narain during a question and answer period to assure him and the Legislature that this was not a "claims bill" to compensate people for what happened at the school. Wood was one of three members to vote against the bill on Tuesday.
On Monday, State Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, made a failed attempt to dramatically reduce the amount of money families would be eligible for reimbursement. Tobia said $7,500 is too much money to rebury the children and said by setting that as a maximum, people would try to spend that amount.
"Two thousand is a lot more reasonable than $7,500," Tobia said.
But that brought a flurry of questions from Democrats in the House.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, questioned why Tobia would offer such a low amount, noting that the cost of burying his grandmother was far more expensive than $2,000.
"So it's your opinion Rep. Tobia that because these remains were in the ground that they don't deserve a respectable burial like one of our family members would?" Fullwood asked Tobia.
But moments later, Tobia pulled his proposal from consideration, allowing the legislation to keep the $7,500 that Joyner and Narain had proposed originally.