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USF Team Asks for Reconsideration to Exhume Bodies at Dozier

July 21, 2013 - 6:00pm

The team of researchers at the University of South Florida working to exhume the bodies at the now-defunct Dozier School for Boys has fired back at Secretary of State Ken Detzner, asking him to reconsider the rejection to exhume bodies at the school.

Earlier this month, Detzner rejected the teams research permitto exhume bodies at the school, saying the Department of State did not have the legal authority to fulfill the teams request. Detzner said his department can approve permits to remove items of historical or archaeological value, but that the department cannot approve permits to remove human remains.

But Drs. Erin Kimmerle and Christian Wells believe the state does, in fact, have the authority to grant the permit to exhume bodies at the school.

Our understanding, as anthropologists of Florida state law, is that when human remains are found in an unmarked cemetery or an unmarked grave that we need to report that to the Bureau of Archaeological Research, and then its their jurisdiction and its up to them to issue a permit to excavate, said Dr. Wells.

In a letter to Detzner on Monday,Gerard Solis, deputy general counsel for the research team said there were two "threshold issues" they wished to have clarified.

The team emphasized that the purpose of their research is not just to excavate bodies for research, but also to return the remains of the bodies to their families.

USF researchers are not at Dozier to get ideas for a journal article, but to return lost human remains to their families, wrote Solis.

Solis also requested that Detzner clarify under what circumstances his agency could authorize the excavation of human remains.

"Is the authorization only possible when there is a danger that an unmarked burial will be damaged or destroyed? This clarification is needed because archaeologists in Florida often excavate and relocate human remains under the authority of the Division of Historical Resources of the Department of State," read the letter.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has been a strong advocate for the exhumation of bodies at Dozier, weighed in on the latest development in the ongoing saga to learn what really happened at the Dozier school.

The state has ample authority here, Nelson said. Their refusal to issue the permits is just a dodge. The response by USF makes hash out of the states position.

Researchers have found themselves in a tough situation because they cant find out what exactly is in the alleged burial site without completing a full excavation. Root growth through the unmarked graves, according to Kimmerle, can be particularly destructive to human remains.

Kimmerle said it was important to get the remains for the families who have been pushing so hard for closure to find out what happened to their loved ones while they were at Dozier.

The fact that there are families here asking for this makes it even more important to answer their questions; to have answers, and ultimately the remains, if that is their wish, said Kimmerle on Monday.

The Dozier School for Boys has come under fire several times since it was founded 113 years ago in 1900. Allegations of torture and abuse, both physical and sexual, of boys living at the school became more common in recent years. The "Boot Hill Cemetery" is already widely known, but the possibility still exists of more burial sites scattered throughout the school grounds. USF researchers believe there may be more than 50 unmarked graves at the school.

USF has asked Detzner to reconsider the rejection of the research permit. If the agency continues to reject USF's permit after reconsideration, the team has asked for a Final Agency Order stating the basis for denial.

But despite the rejections and the lengthy process to exhume bodies at the school, the research team said they aren't giving up.

We are not deterred by this at all, began Dr. Wells. We are very committed to moving forward with the project and we will continue to do so.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen at allison@sunshinestatenews.com.

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