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Discovery of Unmarked Graves Earns 2020 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award

Erin Kimmerle led a four-year excavation during which she and her team discovered the remains of dozens of boys in unmarked graves. | Neil Orman/AAAS

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.

Kimmerle meets with Elmore Bryant, NAACP Area Coordinator and former mayor of Marianna. NAACP support was key in the excavation process. | Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF

Kimmerle used ground penetrating radar, historical imagery analysis and traditional excavation techniques to exhume the remains of 51 boys — previously listed as “missing” — from unmarked graves. Her research, including skeletal analysis of human remains, ethnographic interviews and examination of archival documentation, shows that the children at the school suffered beatings, forced labor, sexual abuse and malnutrition.

Collaborating with a multidisciplinary team of more than 65 volunteers from 12 law enforcement agencies and universities, Kimmerle was able to positively identify eight of the bodies using DNA. Those identified were returned to their families, and in 2017, Scott signed into law a bill providing $1.2 million for reburials and memorials.

The remains of fourteen additional boys were presumptively identified using demography and the location and date of burials. Survivors of the school’s abuse are still seeking restitution.

In 2017, both the Florida Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions acknowledging the state’s role in the injustices. In the House resolution, representatives apologized to the victims and expressed their “commitment to ensuring that children who have been placed in the State of Florida’s care are protected from abuse and violations of fundamental human decency.”

The findings of Kimmerle’s research received coverage from hundreds of global news outlets. Kimmerle also established a publicly available digital archive at the University of South Florida that includes audio and visual recordings, transcripts of oral history interviews, maps and photographs related to the project, and she is working on a book on the topic.

“Dr. Kimmerle’s research at the Dozier School site led to the unlocking of a tragic history in our state,” wrote former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida in a letter to AAAS. “Dr. Kimmerle’s expertise in forensic anthropology and her dedication to applying her profession provided a voice for human rights.”

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was established in 1980. Achievements that the award recognizes include acting to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education and public policy; and establishing important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities of scientists or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award consists of a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque.

Kimmerle will receive the prize during the 186th AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Wash., on Feb. 16, 2020.