Kappa Sigma fraternity has returned to the University of Miami’s lush Coral Gables campus to recruit backward-capped bros with the rest of the Greek alphabet this Spring. After a four year ban, their Facebook page shows smiling young men in pastel tanks and boat shoes participating in sorority fundraisers and charity events. Not nearly as provocative as FIU’s recent Pi Kappa Alpha Facebook debacle, Kappa Sigma’s Epsilon-Beta chapter has experienced its fair share of mischief over the years. Beneath the wholesome grins of Kappa Sig’s fresh-faced recruits is a litany of charges that led to the frat’s expulsion in 2009.
Four years have passed, and the brothers who were part of the frat graduated or dropped out. It’s one thing to want to turn over a new leaf in the wake of alcohol violations and unregistered parties, but we will never forget the hazing death of Chad Meredith, and neither should you.
If Chad Meredith were alive today, he would be 30 years old and would probably reminisce about the intoxicated antics of his college days. If he had made it across, he would probably recount to his wide-eyed children that time he swam across Lake Osceola with his soon-to-be fraternity brothers during a hurricane warning. But on Nov. 5, 2001, the 18-year-old drowned, just three months after arriving at UM. He was 34 feet from the shore. His blood-alcohol content level was 0.13.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Meredith was a top baseball athlete and very popular. He was fondly remembered by his floor at Mahoney Residential College for being polite and sweet. At home, his family was known to be tight-knit and two years after his death, they would still visit his grave every day. He had two older twin sisters and was especially close to his then 6-year-old niece, Alexa. “That’s the same moon my Uncle Chad is looking at,” Alexa would say pointing to the night sky after her uncle’s untimely passing according to The Miami Hurricane.
After arriving on campus, Meredith soon befriended Kappa Sigma President Travis Montgomery, who would also be swimming in the lake that ill-fated night. Both were from Indianapolis and even worked at the same country club over the summer. The pair had plenty to talk about, and Meredith, who was at the frat house every night of the week, quickly met the rest of the brothers.
During recruitment, Meredith was one of only nine in Kappa Sigma’s pledge group. Montgomery felt pressure from alumni about the low numbers, but would bring Meredith to dinner with them to assure everyone that the young men joining the frat were of character. “Afterwards, one of [the alumni] told me, ‘If the other pledges are half as good as this one, we’ll be fine,’” Montgomery told The Miami Hurricane.
Classes were cancelled on Nov. 5, 2001 because of a hurricane warning. Before dawn, Meredith had attended a Ludacris concert and an off-campus party with his soon-to-be fraternity brothers Montgomery, David May and Timothy Williamson. Back at the frat house, the young men drank more beer when Montgomery suggested they swim the 437 feet across Lake Osceola. He had done it when he was a pledge, Montgomery assured the bunch.
Another pledge had been asked to swim too, but declined. On the walk from the frat house on San Amaro Drive to the lake’s shore, Williamson whispered to Meredith that he didn’t have to swim if he didn’t want to. But Meredith put down his 32-ounce can of beer, – that one of the older brothers had provided to the under-aged Meredith – stripped to his boxers, and dived into the cold, dark water with Montgomery and May.
Not quite halfway across the lake, Meredith began to yell for help. May was 15 feet away from Meredith, but swam to shore assuming Montgomery would help the flailing pledge. Police divers recovered Meredith’s body five hours later.
“’They tell you, you don’t have to do it, but you know that you’ve got to do it. You’re supposed to do it,’” Meredith’s father, William Meredith, said his son told him about hazing before his death in a deposition according to the Palm Beach Post.
In February 2004, a Miami-Dade county jury awarded $14 million of Kappa Sigma’s insurance policy to Meredith’s family in their wrongful death suit. Defendants Montgomery and May claimed that the swim was not an initiation rite and unrelated to the fraternity.
“Presidents of fraternities don’t haze themselves,” defense attorney Donald Hardeman argued. “He didn’t swim the lake because he was a pledge. Nobody made him do it.”
According to the New York Times, Indiana professor Hank Nuwer, who has written four books on hazing, said in 2012 that 104 students have died in hazing-related incidents since 1970. But universities and fraternities, hoping to quiet the bad PR drama, dismiss these tragedies: despite UM’s zero-tolerance hazing policy, the Kappa Sigma fraternity remained on campus for seven more years. Montgomery and May were not expelled, nor did they face criminal charges. The only noticeable change is the “Swimming in the lake prohibited” signs posted around the lake’s perimeter that are still there today.
On Jan. 31, 2009, Kappa Sigma’s charter was revoked by the national organization (not the university) for “social and alcohol violations contrary to their code of conduct.” While the ruling was unrelated to Meredith’s death and hazing, it did mark the end of a grisly chapter of a frat on a downward spiral.
“We will wait until the landscape has changed,” then executive director of Kappa Sigma Mitchell Wilson told The Miami Hurricane. “It will be after everyone that is currently a member graduates so we can get a fresh start.”
This spring, Kappa Sigma returns to recruit more young men who aren’t versed in the frat’s hazing history. After all, current freshman were only 6, the same age as Meredith’s niece, when Meredith died.
This post was originally published on Sept. 15 on tropicaldisturbanceum.wordpress.com.