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Researchers are working to solve a mystery surrounding dozens of unmarked graves at North Florida's Dozier School for Boys. The state-run reform school operated for more than a century until just two years ago. And for much of that time, the school was notorious for beatings and physical abuse. Now, researchers are asking who is buried there, and how they died. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Marianna, Fla.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In the 1960s, administrators at the Dozier School erected 31 crosses on an old burial ground a couple of miles from the main buildings. There were no headstones or other markers to indicate individual gravesites. And in fact, it's not clear how many boys were buried there over several decades.
Erin Kimmerle is a forensic anthropologist from the University of South Florida. She's leading a team of 20 people beginning the painstaking job of exhuming the remains of those in the unmarked graves. Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers identified as many as 50 potential burial shafts. This weekend, they got to work with shovels, trowels and other hand tools.
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ERIN KIMMERLE: We've uncovered bone and teeth, coffin hardware, remnants of wood from the coffin.
ALLEN: The remains will be recovered and sent back to the university - in Tampa - for forensic analysis. So far, two sets of remains have been unearthed, and Kimmerle says they already have some clues.
KIMMERLE: On the first individual, we are even able to estimate his age. He's probably 10 to 13 years old, about 5-2 to 5-4 in height.
ALLEN: The coffin hardware recovered at the grave also helps date the burial sometime after 1930, narrowing the possibilities further. It's unclear how many boys died at the Dozier School over the century it was in existence. Also unclear, in many cases, is how they died. An investigation conducted by the state several years ago identified more than 80 boys who died at the school from various causes - accidents, illness; and many were unexplained.
That investigation began after a group of former residents, many now in their 70s and 80s, told stories of beatings and physical abuse they received there. And some said they believe boys died as a result. The Florida investigators said they couldn't confirm the stories of beatings and physical abuse, and found no evidence of wrongdoing. But the former residents kept telling their stories.
Robert Straley is one of the founding members of the group known as the White House Boys, named for the small building where they received their beatings. The evidence the researchers uncover, he believes, will finally show the truth.
ROBERT STRALEY: So I think people will realize that these just weren't stories that we made up, or old wives' tales or folklore. This really happened. They flogged boys for 68 years.
ALLEN: As the White House Boys organized and began talking about what happened at the Dozier School, they got the attention of researchers at the University of South Florida. The researchers have been working to identify, and contact families of boys known to have died there. At least 10 families say they hope the forensic work will allow them to bring their loved ones home for reburial.
Kimmerle, an associate professor at USF, says her team will develop profiles for each set of remains including age, sex, ancestry, and how they died.
KIMMERLE: We put together this picture, and then we compare that to this list of who we think is missing and, particularly by age and date, start to narrow that pool down. DNA samples will be sent to the University of North Texas, and then compared to family samples.
ALLEN: It's work Kimmerle has done before with human rights groups in the Balkans, Africa and Latin America. This effort is being supported financially by the state of Florida and the Justice Department. And the exhumations begun this weekend may be just the beginning. Kimmerle says there may be another burial ground at the Dozier School.
KIMMERLE: We haven't identified any, but we have reports of it. And there's families over the years - several families over the years - who were shown burials by administrators, but were show them in different locations other than where those crosses are. So to us, that's been credible information just - at least to say, well, we need to follow up on it.
ALLEN: Kimmerle says her team hopes to complete the exhumations over the winter. Then, they'll get to work on the biological profiles and DNA analysis, to begin answering some of the questions surrounding the graves at the Dozier School.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Marianna, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.