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Researchers Probe Horrors Behind Deaths At Florida School For Boys

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's get an update now about a shocking story we've been reporting on. In North Florida, researchers working at the Dozier School for Boys, a now closed reform school, have identified more of the human remains they discovered in unmarked graves. Men who spent time at the school back in the 1950s and 1960s have described harsh conditions in which boys were brutally beaten - sometimes to death. That research team has been studying the remains of 51 people. NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. And we should warn you that some of what we're going to talk about will be difficult to hear. And Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The school closed several years ago. So why - remind us why they're conducting the investigation now.

ALLEN: Well, it really got started about a decade ago, when a group of men who'd been at the Dozier School as boys started telling their stories to reporters. And the news reports started to come out. At that point, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was ordered to conduct an investigation. The department did so but said it wasn't able to determine the identities of who was buried at the school or even how many boys were buried there. But there was an anthropologist the University of South Florida, Erin Kimmerle, and she said she thought it was possible. And so using ground-penetrating radar and other forensic techniques, she's been up there for the last three years and has come up with some information.

MONTAGNE: Remind us exactly what the researchers found.

ALLEN: Well, the 51 bodies found on the school grounds are more than what school records said were buried at the school. Using DNA gathered from family members of boys who were known to have died there, researchers have identified the remains of five people buried there so far. They're hoping to contact more families and gather more DNA to continue identifying the remains.

MONTAGNE: And how did these boys die? Were they able to figure that out?

ALLEN: Well, it's hard to come up with cause of death, they say. They know that some boys died of sickness. There was a fire at the school in 1914, when at least seven people died. The researchers have found the remains so far of only three people in the cemetery from that fire. But also in the remains of one boy they discussed yesterday, who's not yet been identified, Kimmerle says they found what appears to be a piece of buckshot - a shotgun pellet. Here's what she had to say about it yesterday in a briefing in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIN KIMMERLE: In that case, though, the remains themselves - the skull - remains themselves are not well preserved. And so we're not able to say anything about health or trauma or cause of death. And that would help understand better what had caused his death. But we don't know.

MONTAGNE: And what, Greg, has been the reaction to this investigation?

ALLEN: Well, people in the nearby town of Marianna have not been happy about it. There's a feeling there, I think, that it's a book that should remain closed. Erin Kimmerle now is asking the state to look into some claims that she heard repeatedly from men who were at the school in the 1960s. Some of those men say they were subjected not just to beatings but also to sexual abuse. Here's Kimmerle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIMMERLE: In some way, we hope that it's not just glossed over and pushed aside. A lot of these men, you know, were helping us to try to find burials or give us other information about the school. And this comes up, and they, you know, are very distraught in their stories.

MONTAGNE: And how much more do researchers hope to uncover about those stories?

ALLEN: Well, at this point, I think they're focused mostly on identifying the bodies they've uncovered so far and find the remains of the rest of the boys who died in the fire a century ago. But Robert Straley's one of the men who was at the Dozier School as a boy. I talked to him yesterday. He was there in 1963 and 1964. I asked him if he thought Kimmerle's investigation will uncover the truth.

ROBERT STRALEY: I think it's going to get as much out as can be gotten out. We will never know where some of those boys are buried.

ALLEN: And Renee, you know, the researchers have just a few more months to do work at the school. Their permit runs out this summer.

MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much. That's NPR's Greg Allen. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.