Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist who worked to account for dozens of children buried at a notorious Florida reform school, will receive the 2020 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The award honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose actions have exemplified scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances, sometimes at risk to their professional or physical safety.
Despite pushback from those unwilling to reckon with the school’s past, Kimmerle led a four-year excavation during which she and her team discovered the remains of dozens of boys in unmarked graves. Her work has begun the process of justice and closure for the victims’ families and brought an overlooked case of wrongdoing to a global audience.
“Erin Kimmerle discovered the unmarked graves of boys who were consigned to cruel incarceration and whose families had no idea what had happened to them,” said Jessica Wyndham, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS. “Her exemplary research that revealed an alarming history of abuses demonstrates how scientists can apply their expertise in the service of justice and human rights.”
From 1900 to 2011, the state of Florida operated the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna. Some of the children institutionalized there were sent by courts after committing serious crimes. Others were sent as punishment for minor infractions, such as incorrigibility, truancy or shoplifting. Most of the boys were black and came from families with few resources with which to fight their sentences.
From 2012 to 2016, Kimmerle, who directs the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at University of South Florida, led an investigation into the first 60 years of the school’s operation. In the project’s early stages, after Rick Scott, then governor of Florida, and the state’s legislature authorized a year-long dig at the site, Sid Riley, the publisher of Marianna’s Jackson County Times, expressed his disapproval of the decision, echoing the position of many local residents.
“The bad publicity which will ensue during the year or more of time which will be involved will seriously hamper our local tourism development programs, as well as economic development efforts for our county,” Riley said in an Aug. 2013 story in The Ledger, a newspaper based in Lakeland, Fla. “Please do not allow them to engage in this greed motivated waste of money.”
Likewise, Marianna’s police chief wrote to a state attorney about the possibility of preventing the dig under a state statute that forbids the “destruction, mutilation, defacement, injury or removal” of a gravesite.