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Drownings Raise Hazing Questions

Dispute: Police see no sign of crime in two deaths. But others fear the beach tragedy resulted from pledging ritual at black sorority.

September 14, 2002|SANDY BANKS and JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The late-night drownings of two college students this week in rough surf at Dockweiler State Beach appear to have been accidental, police said Friday, but African American sorority and fraternity members are agonizing over the possibility that the women died inadvertently during a hazing ritual for a venerated black sorority.

Kenitha Saafir, 24, of Compton and Kristin High, 22, both seniors at Cal State L.A., drowned in heavy surf late Monday night. They were at the beach with five other college women--three of them reportedly members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and the other two, like High and Saafir, pledges aspiring to join.

Police said Friday that they had no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and had believed survivors' accounts that they were at the beach to exercise. There were no signs that the deaths were related to the use of alcohol, coercion, reckless endangerment or other criminal acts, said a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, Sgt. John Pasquariello.

Hazing is a misdemeanor defined under state law as any act "that causes or is likely to cause bodily danger, physical harm or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm" to anyone involved in an initiation rite for a student organization.

Several veterans of black fraternities and sororities don't believe that the women--college students juggling jobs and families--were exercising late at night on a beach. Forced calisthenics are a common ritual, they said, and sending pledges blindfolded into the ocean is a staple of West Coast pledge routines.

The group that the two drowning victims were reported to be pledging is the nation's oldest black sorority, with a long list of famous members, including Toni Morrison, Marian Anderson, Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks.

Alpha Kappa Alpha has 900 chapters nationwide, though there are none affiliated with Cal State L.A., where Saafir was a studio art major and High, the mother of a 2-year-old boy, was a business major.

A member of High's family said they had been pledging through an underground chapter.

Betty N. James, executive director of the Chicago-based sorority, declined to comment beyond a prepared statement: "The sorority expresses its condolences to the families and will cooperate with authorities in their investigation."

For years, the sorority, like the rest of the nine black Greek organizations, has expressly forbidden hazing in any form, including "paddling, creative or excessive fatigue, physical or psychological shock or morally degrading or humiliating activities."

At a candlelight vigil Thursday for the two women, Lawrence Ross Jr., whose book, "The Divine Nine," is considered the definitive volume on black Greek life, urged more than 100 people to use the deaths as a call to end hazing. "Without a revolution in our ranks, Kenitha and Kristin have died in vain ... while trying to be one of us, an African American fraternal member," he said.

Pledges don't have to be bound or forced into the water or up a tree, said Ross, who pledged Alpha Phi Alpha at UC Berkeley and travels the country speaking about the menace of hazing. "Young men and women go willingly to whatever ends they're told to go because they want to be part of something, because that's how much it means."

Ross said wade-into-the-ocean rituals typically require blindfolded pledges to make their way through the waves to a leader, who stands in the water urging them on. It is explained as a way to show trust.

"The young people are quick to say, 'It's not hazing; it's pledging,' " he said. "But at what point does it become hazing--when the blindfolds go on, when the water reaches their knees, when the waves knock them under and they can't breathe? Or when they drown and the policeman pulls them out?"

LAPD Capt. Ken Hillman, who was at Dockweiler on Monday night, said survivors told police they had gone to the beach to run and to perform calisthenics. Police first spotted them about 10 p.m., running in orderly lines across the beach.

Even though the beach was closed, police said they did not question the women because they seemed to be engaged in an organized exercise.

The waves were as high as 10 feet, and the riptide was strong enough to drag swimmers 300 yards out to sea. Witnesses told police one of the women appeared to have been knocked down by a swell, then pulled under. The other apparently tried to save her, and both were swept away.

High's family said she was a strong swimmer. Saafir's family could not be reached.

Dispatchers received a 911 emergency call at 11:22 p.m., reporting a loud commotion, possibly a party, at the beach, which is west of Los Angeles International Airport. A minute later a second call reported a woman screaming for help.

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