“When I try to remember it, most of the time all I see is red… a red haze… I do remember thinking I was going to die.” This is how Robert Straley, a former student at the Dozier School for Boys, describes his time there as a thirteen year old in the early 1960s. The Dozier School, located in Marianna, Florida, operated for over 100 years, seeing thousands of “troubled” young boys pass through its doors by order of the state. Tragically, dozens of the Dozier students never left the school’s grounds; by the time it closed in 2011, Dozier reported 31 children died while in attendance. Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier, directed by Heidi Burke, follows the reporter who brought the story to light and the forensic anthropologist who made it her mission to identify the boys beneath those unmarked graves.
The story starts with Ben Montgomery, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times who first speaks to Straley about Dozier in the early 2000s. Montgomery then meets hundreds with stories exactly like Straley’s: boys from poor families who had committed minor infractions that sent them straight to Dozier, without the consent of their parents. At Dozier, they experienced brutal mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the guards, who were often community members with families of their own. “They became men like demons,” Straley says of the guards during the film, “and when they went home they hugged their grandchildren and went to church.”
As Montgomery delves deeper into the horrors of Dozier, his writing catches the attention of the other key player in Deadly Secrets— forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle from the University of South Florida, who hopes to excavate those unmarked graves. Upon doing so, her team finds the bodies of 55 children buried at Dozier, a number significantly higher than what the state reported. Dr. Kimmerle employs forensic analysis to test the DNA of the excavated remains against the DNA of possible family members she tracks down through old ledgers and state records. It’s frustrating work, as most records are incomplete, or simply wrong. Still, amazingly, she identifies the remains of nearly 20 of the 55 missing boys.
Kimmerle’s diligent work and Montgomery’s vital reporting are inspiring, but the real heart of this film lies with the students and their families. One such family member is Cherry Wilson, whose brother Earl was sent to Dozier when Cherry was six years old. That was the last time she saw Earl, whom she recalls lovingly as always bringing her candy, though she has thought about him every single day since he left. Kimmerle was able to identify Earl’s remains and return them to his family.
Overall, I wish the film dedicated more time to the students themselves. I think their memories were more essential than detailing Kimmerle’s struggle to excavate, or Montgomery’s newspaper articles. Still, this story would not have been brought to light without their dedication to the cause, so I understand why the film covered them in such depth; I wouldn’t necessarily cut any of their parts out, as they were still interesting and important, but I would add more coverage of the students.
Deadly Secrets does really capture the haunting details of Dozier, most of which I have left out, because hearing these chilling stories from the mouths of the survivors themselves is infinitely more powerful than reading them on a screen. The film itself can be tricky to find; I was only able to view it thanks to UM’s Center For Midlife Science and their film series: “The Disappeared: A Human Rights Film Series & Discussion,” which explored the idea of enforced disappearance. This was the last event in the series, and it closed with a discussion featuring Ford School of Public Policy professor Susan Waltz and School of Public Health professor Siobán Harlow, who shed more light on how the Florida government perpetuated these disappearances. Overall, both the event and the film were important and insightful. If you can find the film, I recommend you give it a watch; at the very least, look into this fascinating story and learn the names of Dozier’s lost children.