Tampa man learns his uncle died at Dozier School for Boys

Tampa resident Robert Stephens remembers a call from USF researchers a few years ago -- one he never expected.

"Just, 'You're Robert Stephens; we think we have a relative of yours here at the school. Would you like to give a DNA sample to help identify him?'" he recalled.

Stephens said yes. This week, his family learned that researchers had positively identified the body of his uncle, excavated from an unmarked grave at the former state-run Dozier School for Boys.

"Within the first 55-years of the school, nearly 100 children died. About half of those were at the school grounds, although there was very little documentation about where they were buried or the circumstances of their death," said USF anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, part of a team of researchers who have been seeking answers about the Dozier school for the past three years.

Kimmerle says they're seeking to educate people about "the systems, processes and people that created and sustained an institution that considered some lives throwaway."

Stephens learned his uncle Robert Stephens - his namesake - died at the Dozier school in 1936. At 14, he was sentenced to two years at the reform school for breaking and entering. He died 10 months later. School records indicated he was stabbed by another inmate. USF researchers say his remains indicated disease and starvation, but were unable to confirm other trauma because of the age of the remains.

"I learned that from the outside, when the kids first came in, it looked real nice. You got kids playing basketball, doing different activities. But once night fell, it was a whole different story: beatings, starvation," nephew Robert explained.

USF is presenting a final report of its findings to the state in January. They are also working with several non-profit groups to plan a public memorial for the children whose remains they're unable to identify.