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Los Angeles

Suit Alleges Hazing in Death

Litigation: Family of Kristin High, one of two college students who drowned, seeks $100 million from sorority.

September 24, 2002|DANIEL HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of one of two Cal State Los Angeles students who drowned this month filed a $100- million wrongful death lawsuit Monday against Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority that Kristin High's family blames for her death at Dockweiler State Beach.

The suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court contends that High, a 22-year-old senior at Cal State Los Angeles and mother of a 2-year-old boy, was led into heavy surf late at night on Sept. 9 by sorority members. It contends that High, wearing sweatpants and tennis shoes, was tied up and blindfolded and taken into the water in what is believed to be a pledging ritual popular with black fraternities and sororities on the West Coast. The ritual is supposed to build trust between pledges and older members.

Waves that night were cresting about 10 feet, Los Angeles police said. When a swell pulled down High and 24-year-old senior Kenitha Saafir, the women on the beach tried to rescue them. Officers called to the scene pulled High and Saafir from the water and administered CPR, but it was too late. The county coroner's office verified the cause of death.

Police said that the drownings were accidental and that although hazing has not been ruled out, no evidence of wrongdoing--including blindfolds or rope--was found at the scene or on the women.

"There was some sorority-related activity; that's why they were at the beach," LAPD Lt. Mike DePasquale said. "The actual drownings, however, occurred after the activities were over.... Was there hazing? Maybe. But we don't think so."

Lawyers for the family disagreed and accused the sorority of a "code of silence".

"It is now turning [into] what we believe is a cover-up," attorney Mansfield Collins said. "Nobody is talking to us. We had no choice but to file this lawsuit. This is a very courageous family. They don't want their daughter to die in vain."

Carl Douglas, the lawyer representing Saafir's widower, Karim Saafir, said Monday that his client hopes to resolve his concerns informally with the sorority's national representatives.

The Cal State Los Angeles chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha is an unofficial group not recognized by the campus or the sorority's headquarters.

Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is based in Chicago, is the oldest black sorority in the nation and includes as members Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Rosa Parks.

Sorority officials in Chicago did not return calls seeking comment. But in an earlier statement the organization promised to cooperate with authorities.

High's parents, Patricia Strong-Fargas and Samuel High, said they were outraged by the silence of those present that night. Those sorority members and pledges did not attend the women's funerals and have not contacted the family, they said.

"I know [these women]. They were in my home. I've fed them at my table," Strong-Fargas said.

"I'm not angry at them," she said. "I'm just disappointed. They're hiding behind this code of silence, and they're victims too."

High's parents said they want the national organization to own up to what's happening at some campuses, albeit unofficially, in the name of sisterhood.

"They call it 'underground,' but they know, they know that this is going on," Strong-Fargas said. "It's gone too far."

The family is establishing an anti-hazing organization and a scholarship fund for Skyler Arthurs, High's son.

The boy's father, Holman Arthurs, who was High's fiance, said at a news conference announcing the suit: "You can tell by my face, my eyes and my voice that I am angry. This was the person I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with."

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