The first death occurred in late August, two days before classes began, when an incoming freshman was struck by a car while walking on a freeway near the University of Southern California. In the more than 2 months since, eight other USC students have died – at least three by suicide, others by unknown means.
The string of fatalities has left students and faculty at the prestigious university shaken and struggling for answers. CBS Los Angeles reported that the latest fatality – a 27-year-old student found dead Monday in an off-campus apartment – came days after administrators sent letters to students and parents about the series of deaths.
“There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of these deaths and most are being attributed to suicide. This is not correct,” the station quoted one of the letters as saying.
“These tragic losses have resulted from a number of different causes. In some cases the cause of death is still undetermined, and in others loved ones do not want details disclosed,” the university’s president, Carol Folt, said in the letter.
While officials say three of the deaths are confirmed suicides, the causes of the others are not known or haven’t been released. The latest case is still under investigation.
Administrators said they decided to reach out about the deaths to be as transparent as possible and to let students who are going through emotional turmoil know there are campus resources available.
“We know that our students are looking for answers,” said Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health. “It’s important that if we hear misinformation, we share what we do know.”
Students acknowledged that word of the deaths has shaken the campus.
“It’s definitely been a really tough semester for us,” student body president Trenton Stone said, adding that he and every member of his executive board knew at least one of the students. “There’s a lot going on, and everyone’s asking the same question: ‘What can we be doing?'”
USC senior Nicole Ricken told CBS Los Angeles the recent deaths have really hit close to home. “I’ve been acquaintances with at least four of the students who passed away,” she said. “One of them was one of my closest friends.”
Student government leaders are planning a community event to bring the campus together with health professionals, Stone said.
During a typical school year, USC student deaths have ranged from four to 15, Van Orman said. Six were reported last year at the school with 47,500 students.
“Students are pleading for answers from the university,” said Natalie Bettendorf, managing editor of The Daily Trojan student newspaper. “There’s a sense of desperation from within the student body. There have been too many deaths and not enough answers.”