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Puzzling silence after woman's fatal beating

Sexual AssaultCrimeCrime, Law and JusticeSexual MisconductKim PhamLifestyle and LeisureDining and Drinking

I can't understand the beating death of Kim Pham, the 23-year-old woman kicked and pummeled to death outside a popular nightclub in Santa Ana.

I can't understand the silence of her friends, who were with her that night and must have seen the altercation but refuse to talk to police.

I can only understand the pain and confusion of Pham's father, who is trying to come to grips with the sudden loss of a much-loved daughter who seemed destined for success:

She'd graduated from college, recently moved out of the family home and had just begun a new job. A few hours before she was beaten unconscious, she was reportedly texting her buddies about how she should wear her hair.

Police have arrested two young women — one has been charged with murder — and are looking for another. They have surveillance videos that show Pham being beaten, but don't know enough yet to reconstruct what happened that night.

::

What bothers me most about that night is that dozens of people watched the melee but no one managed to stop it, and everyone involved is now clamming up rather than helping police find the guilty parties.

That reflects a lack of empathy; a purposeful disconnect. We can hold trouble at arm's length as long as we minimize it: If it's not happening to us, then it's no big deal.

That sort of "see no evil" ethos does not just apply to crime in the streets. We see it in play on college campuses, where reports of sexual assaults are ignored and racial harassment tolerated.

Last fall, three San Jose State students were charged with hate crimes for allegedly bullying their black roommate. They'd called him names, barricaded him in the room and clamped a bicycle lock around his neck. It wasn't until the boy's parents visited and saw racial epithets, Nazi paraphernalia and a confederate flag on display in the dorm that college officials were informed and police got involved.

The torment had been going on for months. Four other students lived in that suite, but none of them complained or intervened to stop the harassment.

Last week, a federal task force was formed to address campus sexual assaults amid a wave of complaints by female students that college officials, including locally at Occidental and USC, downplay allegations of sexual abuse, stigmatize the victims and fail to punish the offenders.

I guess it's easier to ignore the crime when you label it "non-consensual sex" — as some universities do — instead of calling it rape.

And it's easier to remain a spectator if you believe that a young woman being stomped and punched is not the victim of a vicious beating, just part of a nightclub brawl.

::

Campus sexual assaults, racial harassment and a random sidewalk beating may not seem logically connected, but they have managed to coalesce in my worried-mother mind.

Maybe it's because they all remind me of how vulnerable even grown-up daughters are. We arm them with a million admonitions to be safe and be careful, but danger tracks them down.

I think back to a few years ago, when my middle daughter was celebrating her 21st birthday with friends at an upscale Hollywood club. A gun went off on the darkened dance floor. She was close enough to see the muzzle flash. Her friends thought it was a champagne cork popping, until people started screaming and security guards cleared the club.

That put a damper on her club-going, but only for a while. She trusts her ability to steer clear of trouble. Her mother is not so sure.

I've tried to raise my girls to look out for others, and I'd like to think that others are looking out for them. But they're circulating in a world of hard hearts, warped minds and hair-trigger tempers. What's a parent to do?

Warn them not to wander into anyone's cellphone photo shoot?

That's what may have led to the altercation that cost Kim Pham her life.

Her father, Dung Pham, finds that unfathomable. "I can't imagine it starts with someone interrupting a photo," he told Times reporter Anh Do, through tears on Sunday night. "I don't know what to think."

Then he excused himself to attend a prayer vigil for his daughter. I hope he prayed that someone finds the courage to speak up.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Sexual AssaultCrimeCrime, Law and JusticeSexual MisconductKim PhamLifestyle and LeisureDining and Drinking
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