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Florida Graves Reveal Reform School Horrors

Hemera/Thinkstock(MARIANNA, Fla.) -- Earlier in September, the Florida legislature approved the exhumation of 34 bodies known to be buried at the Dozier's Boot Hill Cemetery.

Digging began Labor Day weekend and excavators unearthed the remains of two boys -- ages 10 and 13 -- and hope to find the remains of as many as 98 children who were reported missing from reform school records in its 111-year history.

Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys closed in 2011 but left a legacy of segregation, forced labor and brutality that is only today being fully uncovered.

Many families who lost children or others who witnessed beatings still have questions about who is buried at Dozier and how they died.

Now researchers at the University of South Florida hope to match DNA in the remains with families who want answers about their missing relatives.

The year-long project is headed up by USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, who has previously worked on genocide cases, identifying remains in mass graves in the Balkans, Nigeria and Peru.

"It's really about providing access to justice for families," said Kimmerle, 40, who applies science to civil rights.

Robert Straley was 13 when he entered the Florida School for Boys in the early 1960s for running away from home. The 1,400-acre grounds in the city of Marianna looked like heaven compared to his troubled home, he said, but on his first day, he was beaten bloody 35 times with a three-foot leather whip with a sheet metal insert.

Straley was one of about 300 "white house boys," so named because they survived routine beatings in a white concrete block building that he called a "torture chamber."

"You went to the left for the white boys' waiting room and right for the black boys' room," he recalled. "They turned on the big industrial fan, which made a large racket and muted the sounds of the screams and whips somewhat."

The USF investigation is funded by a $190,000 grant from the State of Florida and $423,000 from the U.S. Justice Department.

The school was established in 1900 as the Florida State Reform School in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country and was renamed several times.

At the start, children as young as 5 were sent there, at first for crimes of "theft and murder," but soon for lesser offenses, such as "incorrigibility, truancy or dependency," according to the 2012 interim report by the USF team. For some, the only crime was being an orphan.

As early as 1901, reports circulated of children "being chained to walls in irons, brutal whippings and peonage [forced labor]" and the state was called in at least six times to investigate.

In 2008, an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement revealed 34 had been buried at Boot Hill Cemetery on school grounds in unmarked graves and 22 were unaccounted for. But they couldn't find enough evidence to support the allegations.

But USF did its own research of historical documents and found double the number of deaths, including boys aged 6 to 18 and two staff members. They worked for months to secure a permit to dig.

"The records were very incomplete, full of errors and stopped in 1960," said Kimmerle.

Most of the unmarked graves found so far are near where black children were housed, so many of the former residents say that white children were likely buried elsewhere.

Kimmerle used ground-penetrating radar to detect disturbances in the soil that revealed at least 50 burial shafts. She said her team can, depending how much of the skeletal remains are recovered, do a biological profile and learn more about a child's diet, disease and health indicators like illness or stress.

The coffins of the two boys found, one with decorative handles of the Art Deco period and the other closed shut with nails, provide clues to when they died.

The remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification for DNA testing to see if they match DNA donated by 10 families who have come forward in search of missing relatives.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio