Florida Matters: The Dozier School
The Tampa Bay History Center recently hosted a panel discussion on the now-closed Dozier School for Boys. The reform school in the Florida Panhandle has been known for decades for abuse, torture, and even murder.
This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3 at 7:30 a.m.), we are bringing you highlights of the discussion moderated by Tampa attorney and History Center Trustee Bob Bolt.
The panel includes some of the key players in the investigation of Dozier:
· USF forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle
· Tampa Bay Times journalist Ben Montgomery
· Lead victim activist Glen Varnadoe
Kimmerle’s team unearthed the remains of 51 boys from 55 unmarked graves in a cemetery at the school in Mariana.
“Twenty one have been identified, and the rest have not,” Kimmerle said. “Some of the samples have been resubmitted, so there’s some DNA testing still going on, but most of those will remain unidentified.”
Glen Varnadoe’s father, Hubert, and his uncle, Thomas, were sent to Dozier in 1934. Thomas died less than a month after arriving at Dozier, reportedly from pneumonia. Thomas’ remains were among those found buried on the school’s grounds and then positively identified through DNA.
“Since 1903, that school was getting failing grades, if you will, or failing reports, being sent on how the school was doing to the state legislature,” Varnadoe said. “The legislature got those reports every year , and knew every year, the legislature and the governor, knew this school was failing.”
The Dozier school was finally closed in 2011.
“The U.S. Department of Justice did a modern investigation that actually came out right around the time the school had been closed, pointing out all sorts of problems with the school. But accountability sort of remains elusive,” Montgomery said. “One of the guards -- the one armed man, a man named Troy Tidwell – I’ve talked to 200 men who say he’s the guy. He’s my nightmare. He’s the guy who beat me senseless. He’s alive.”
A group of former students who call themselves the White House Boys named Tidwell in a class-action lawsuit.
“He said he never gave more than 12 spankings, when all the boys talk about how they could hear the strap scraping the wall, and then the ceiling, and then they expected the bang after that,” Montgomery said. “Unfortunately – I say unfortunately -- the fact is, the statute of limitations has expired on every crime except for capital rape and murder. “
During the 2016 Florida Legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that will reimburse families for funeral expenses to rebury boys who died at Dozier. The bill, which was signed into law Wednesday morning by Gov. Rick Scott, also creates a task force that will decide how to memorialize the site, and what to do with remains that are unidentified or unclaimed.
"My advice was to separate the issues, what to do with the property, separate than the memorial,” Kimmerle said. “I don't think any of the families, whether they've had remains returned or not, want to see their remains buried at that school again."
Tuesday at 6:30 PM | Sunday at 7:30 AM on WUSF 89.7
Monday at 10:00 PM on WSMR 89.1
Robin Trohn Sussingham is a reporter and program host at WUSF Public Broadcasting, and is the producer of Florida Matters. She came to WUSF from public radio stations KUER and KCPW in Utah, has contributed stories to NPR and Marketplace, and also has an extensive background in print reporting. She was born in Lakeland and often reports about Polk County.
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