Silence and Evil

Some of you may have read the story of the 55 bodies found at a reform school for boys in Florida. Although the national media is finally paying some attention (law professor Tim Wu deserves some credit for this), I cannot help but wonder the reasons that it isn’t considered true headline news. It is hard to identify a clearer example of a recent story exhibiting  such genuine evil and injustice.

From 1900 to 2011, the State of Florida operated the Florida School for Boys (under a few different names) in order to house children with checkered and/or criminal pasts. Survivors of the school have come forward to allege systemic rape, torture, abuse, and murder by staff. As long ago as 1968, the state acknowledged that the school had engaged in illegal and immoral practices when then-Governor Claude Kirk stated, “Somebody should have blown the whistle a long time ago.” Yet, it wasn’t until the 2011 Department of Justice and 2010 Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigations were completed that the reform school finally closed its doors.

The University of South Florida has fought through bureaucratic obstacles and a reluctant state government to search the school grounds and recently excavated 55 bodies of children. Although some deaths are likely due to natural causes, the sheer number and unmarked nature of the graves are strong evidence of murder. At present, there are neither pending criminal charges nor any criminal investigation.

The Florida government has seemed far more interested in making people forget about the school than pursuing justice. In 2009, the state refused to use ground-penetrating radar to search for bodies. In 2010, the local state attorney declined to open an investigation because, in part, of statue of limitations concerns. Of course, murder has no such limit. And the state simply presumed that the incidents occurred long ago without interviewing witnesses or searching for bodies. The state attorney’s letter declining to pursue the case reads like a defense counsel closing argument as it seeks to discredit selected accusations by survivors.

Why is it that what is essentially a mass grave of children in the United States not the most salient story of the day? Is it because the children in question were “criminals?” Are we (or the media) all too ready to forget even the recent past? Is it simply easier to ignore truly harrowing events so that we can continue on blissfully unaware? I don’t know the answers, but I think it is important to explore why many choose to remain silent in the face of such atrocities. After all, it was likely silence by support staff, guards, educators, administrators, state inspectors, and others that allowed the Florida School for Boys to remain open for so long.

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