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Drowning Deaths Remembered

Twenty-two-year-old Kristin High wanted to be a civil rights attorney. The former Cal State Los Angeles student and mother of a 2-year-old boy named Skyler had marched in numerous rallies against police abuse, organized the NAACP chapter of her L.A. campus and worked on committees to register people from her Compton neighborhood to vote.

Her burgeoning activism ended on September 9, 2002, when High and fellow classmate 24-year-old Kenitha Saafir drowned in waves that were reportedly 6 to 8 feet high at Dockweiler State Beach just after 10:30 p.m. Their families claimed the deaths were a sorority pledge ritual gone awry and filed a $100 million lawsuit against Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority, and against individuals who were with High and Saafir that night.

“Kristin had a call to change the world,” said High’s mother, the Rev. Patricia Strong-Fargas, in front of 70 friends and family at the Holy Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Compton who gathered Sunday for a peace rally and to remember the deaths of the two students. “She had started that change. I can’t stop till her dreams and causes have made a difference in this world.”

Strong-Fargas alleged that her daughter had gone through months of humiliation and that High’s would-be sorority sisters had forced her to act like a slave and called upon her at all hours to cook meals, paint fingernails, act as a chauffeur, do chores and braid hair. One night, claims Strong-Fargas, her daughter came home bathed in green paint. Another time, her face and hair were coated in mayonnaise. According to Strong-Fargas’ lawyer, High’s fiancé gave a deposition claiming that just days before her death, High was tied up, blindfolded and led into the water at the same spot where the two women drowned on September 9. Strong-Fargas alleges that the same thing happened the night they died.

Currently negotiating to settle the case with Alpha Kappa Alpha, Strong-Fargas says she won’t settle till changes are made. She has asked for more oversight and wants the sorority to contribute money to anti-hazing groups. She also wants a 24-hour crisis line.

“Personally, I believe they are trying to sweep it under the rug and this is a method of trying to settle without people knowing the whole story,” she said. “I want change. And they are finding out that this will not silence us. Even with reform, I am going to make sure they stick to it.” She plans to write a book, tour around high schools to let students know about hazing, and help raise Skyler, now 4, who is permanently joined at the hip with his grandmother.

A second settlement-mediation meeting is scheduled for September 24.

The memorial and rally were sponsored by Mothers Against Hazing, an anti-hazing group that Strong-Fargas started two years ago, after the national Alpha Kappa Alpha leadership, whose famous alumnae include Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and actress Jada Pinkett Smith, denied any responsibility in the deaths of High and Saafir. AKA insisted it hasn’t had a chapter at California State University, Los Angeles, since 1989, although family members of the deceased claim the national AKA Web site listed the local chapter until just after the deaths.

The first memorial, held last year, drew more than 300 people, and Strong-Fargas expected a big turnout this year. She invited the press as well as local politicians, including L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin and L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks, whose own granddaughter Lori Rene Gonzalez was murdered in 2000. She also invited former Compton residents Venus and Serena Williams, whose half sister, Yetunde Price, was killed by an alleged Compton gang member in 2003. They were all no-shows.

“Where are my people tonight?” she said to the less-than-half-filled church. “This will not stop me. It will put more fire in my engine.”

The memorial soon turned to praying, singing (the church singers could give Whitney Houston a run for her money) and trying to make sense of violence.

“Her big sisters didn’t take care of her,” said a tearful Karim Saafir from the podium about his wife, who he says was also a photographer, artist, and CEO of South House Photography. “I think hazing is a threat. Those who get involved in sororities look at them as support organizations. We need to make sure they live up to that. No one should have to sacrifice their life in the process.”

Kelvin Moody told the gathering about his friend Adriahana Prothro, who was a victim of a drive-by shooting in 1993. Prothro was shot by alleged gang members while attending a USC-vs.-UCLA football game. She spent one year in rehab and was eventually able to go back to school and get a master’s degree in behavioral science. She now works for the LAUSD. Moody received a raucous round of applause.

Remembered, too, was Nicole Williamson, a 19-year-old who was killed on November 29, 2003, in front of her home while she was sitting in her car. She died in her mother’s arms.

“Our children are endangered species,” said a tearful Teresa Williamson. “The real problem is that families are not raising their children. We just blame the police and schools. The people who killed my daughter were cowards. And people who don’t report violence are cowards.” Near the end of the memorial, Strong-Fargas called a shout-out to those who lost loved ones.

“Baby Joanna Leech,” yelled one parishioner. “Vincent Grimes,” said his sister. “My brother was shot and killed in Mobile, Alabama, in 2002.” People just kept standing up to hail lost loved ones, while more attendees wept.

“You don’t have to have done wrong for evil to visit you,” said the Rev. Romar McBride, the church’s associate minister. “It was them this time. It could be you next time.”

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