George Owen Smith was 14 when he disappeared from a reform school for boys in 1940. His family’s initial attempts to determine what happened were dismissed by the warden, who suggested he must have run away from the school.
Last week, University of South Florida researchers said Smith’s body was the first to be identified after discovering 55 shallow graves on the grounds of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. A sibling’s DNA confirmed it was Smith, whose body was wrapped in a shroud and buried in a grave only a couple of feet deep. Too much time has passed to determine from the remains how he died.
Now that researchers have begun identifying the remains, Gov. Rick Scott and state legislative leaders should publicly acknowledge that horrible abuses did occur at the school and apologize to the surviving victims and to the families of the boys who never returned home. And state lawmakers should consider whether a claims bill is appropriate for those deserving of compensation.
The Panhandle school opened in 1900. Enrollment peaked at about 500 in the 1960s before the school closed in 2011 for budgetary reasons.
Former attendees came forward six years ago with claims they were brutally beaten and sexually abused at the school in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the boys sent there, many for the minor crimes of truancy or running away from home, died attempting to escape, while others died within months of arriving.
Though their brutality claims are consistent and credible, the former Dozier attendees have had no luck getting relief from the state. This is an outrageous miscarriage of justice.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it couldn’t substantiate the claims, and a state attorney found insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. A lawsuit by the attendees against the state was dismissed by a judge for, among other reasons, the statute of limitations on assault and battery. Legislative efforts in 2010 and 2011 to compensate the attendees stalled.
And the state seemed to put roadblocks in the way of USF researchers trying to piece together where the bodies were buried, how many there were and the identities of those in the graves.
State records showed 31 graves at the school, and Secretary of State Ken Detzner foolishly fought efforts by USF researchers for a more comprehensive analysis of the site. Thankfully, he lost that battle, and the researchers found 24 more graves than the state records showed and are now attempting to identify as many of the remains as possible.
Smith’s relatives said family members drove from their Polk County home to the Panhandle in 1941 to get answers to his whereabouts and were directed to a fresh grave on the school’s grounds. They were told he had run away months earlier and that his decomposed body was found under a house. No cause of death was given. The family never believed the story, and rightfully so.
At least now they can bring Smith’s remains home to be buried with a proper marker alongside other family members.
The fact the abuse occurred many decades ago doesn’t make the state any less responsible for what happened while running the school. The survivors, and the families of those who didn’t survive, are, at the very least, deserving of an apology for this sad chapter in Florida history.
There’s simply too much evidence for the state to continue to look the other way.