Vote to exhume bodies at Dozier reform school coming next week

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MARIANNA, Fla. —

Closure could soon be coming for abuse victims of the Dozier School for Boys, where more than 400 students claimed sexual and physical abuse.

Dozier was a state-run reform school in the panhandle that opened in 1900 and closed in 2011.

 University of South Florida researchers believe there are dozens of unidentified bodies buried at the school, but several efforts to exhume them have been blocked. However, there's a new push from the governor's office to find the bodies.

Jim Denyke has spent his adult life trying to expose what he calls Florida's darkest secret.

Denyke said he and a group of former students call themselves the White House Boys, a distinction he said came from decades of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the reform school.

"They beat us so bad, they'd beat the clothes into your skin," he said.

Hundreds of the alleged victims said the brutal and bloody beatings happened in the school, which they nicknamed the White House. In the 1950s and '60s, they say some never made it out alive, and a USF archaeologist found evidence of 100 bodies burned on the grounds in Marianna.

"To really know who's there, how many and what happened to them, you have to do full excavation," said archaeologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle.

After years of pushing to exhume those bodies, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet are expected to give the go-ahead next week.

"It will be a major eye-opener," said Denyke.

So far, efforts to identify remains and causes of death have been blocked. In 2011, a state and federal probe found no evidence of criminal behavior, but Denyke said the new development could change that.

"We want closure for everybody, for everyone that's suffered, for the families with missing loved ones," he said.

The dig permit request will be voted on Tuesday in Tallahassee. If approved, the state would give researchers a year to exhume and return the remains to the families.