Newsletter: USC searches for answers after student deaths

The USC campus has been shaken by the deaths of nine students since Aug. 24. Police are looking into whether some of the deaths may have been linked to drug overdoses. Meanwhile, the lack of answers has fed a "sense of desperation from the student body," a USC student journalist said.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Nov. 14, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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It’s been a difficult few days at USC, as concern over a recent series of student deaths has intensified.

Just before midnight on Saturday, USC President Carol Folt sent an email to the campus community, intending to keep the university informed but also to clear up rumors and misinformation. On Monday, student newspaper the Daily Trojan ran a cover story with the headline “A community in mourning.” Later that day, a 27-year-old student was found dead in an apartment off campus. His was the ninth student death since Aug. 24.

As my colleagues reported in a story published Wednesday, USC administrators have been engaged in a delicate balancing act as they notify students, attempt to quell rumors, offer mental health resources and also try to avoid triggering students who may be in the midst of a mental health crisis.

[Read the story: “9 student deaths have USC trying to quell rumors in a delicate balancing act” in the Los Angeles Times]


Officials have confirmed that three students this year died by suicide. In some of the remaining cases, the cause of death is undetermined; in others, families did not want details disclosed, they said.

On Wednesday, Folt confirmed to The Times that police investigators are looking into drug overdoses as a potential cause of death among some of the nine students who have died this semester. Although no links to tainted drugs have yet been confirmed, investigators are trying to determine whether they played a role in any student deaths.

[Read the story: “USC student deaths: Possible drug overdoses, tainted narcotics probed, sources say” in the Los Angeles Times]

“There’s this sense of desperation from the student body, of what can we do? And why aren’t we getting answers? And why are we feeling so lost and helpless?” USC student Natalie Bettendorf, who wrote Monday’s Daily Trojan cover story on the student deaths, said in a student podcast about her reporting.

Bettendorf, who is 20 and a third-year journalism student at USC, told me over the phone Wednesday that she and the rest of the Daily Trojan staff had struggled with how to cover the recent deaths. The student newsroom was deeply cognizant of the role media, including college media, can play in suicide contagion, but they were also aware of the hunger for information on campus. Ultimately, they decided to move forward with their cover story with great sensitivity and a focus on what questions students had.

“We are witnessing something that is really devastating students and the USC community right now and they are pleading for answers from the university,” she said. “If we are a student paper, documenting the history of this university, this is something that we have to cover.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


Democrats succeeded Wednesday in more directly connecting President Trump to alleged misconduct related to Ukraine as they opened historic public impeachment hearings with two career U.S. diplomats who solemnly testified about watching American policy hijacked for Trump’s personal benefit. Los Angeles Times

See also: Decoding Rep. Devin Nunes’ opening statement at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing: The Tulare congressman’s opening statement at the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry included opinions that Nunes has frequently raised on Fox News, but that many Americans might have heard for the first time. Fresno Bee

Southern California Edison has agreed to pay $360 million to dozens of public agencies affected by wildfires and mudslides in the last two years, attorneys involved in the deal said Wednesday. The settlement closes 26 lawsuits involving 23 public entities filed against the utility, including Los Angeles County, which will receive $78 million. Los Angeles Times


Ninety-five percent of residents agree homelessness is L.A.’s biggest problem, according to a new poll. Only traffic congestion and housing affordability — at 88% and 85%, respectively — came close to rivaling the near universal concern over homelessness. Los Angeles Times

Paul Thomas Anderson is reportedly making a high school movie set in the 1970s-era San Fernando Valley. The Valley is fertile territory for Anderson — his cinematic oeuvre includes “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” The Hollywood Reporter

Singer Rod Stewart has secretly spent the last 23 years building a massive, intricate model railway city in his Beverly Hills home. Per the BBC, Stewart worked on the skyscrapers and other scenery while on tour, requesting an extra room for his constructions in his hotels. BBC

Here’s where to eat out on Thanksgiving Day in Los Angeles. These restaurants are your family now. Eater LA

USC is set to receive a $260-million gift, one of largest in higher education, underscoring its fundraising strength. Los Angeles Times

A beloved hip-hop venue operated for years without complaint. Then a nearby yeshiva took notice. Los Angeles Times

Tyler the Creator performing as a surprise guests with Domo Genesis at Lyric Theater. The theater was forced to close in a permitting dispute with a nearby yeshiva.
(Courtesy Lyric Theater)

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When a company would rather sue than find two women for its all-male board: A California law intended to create more gender equity in corporate boardrooms is facing a second legal challenge, this time in federal court. Sacramento Bee

Sen. Kamala Harris is introducing legislation that would ban utilities under bankruptcy, such as PG&E, from paying bonuses to executives. But it’s unlikely that the bill would become law anytime soon. San Francisco Chronicle


A Del Mar father received a six-month sentence in the college admissions scandal. The sentence for Toby Macfarlane is the longest handed down in the case so far. Los Angeles Times


New research shows that the Ridgecrest earthquakes that began in July ruptured at least two dozen faults. It’s the latest evidence of how small faults can join together to produce a large earthquake, and how those quakes can cover a wider area than expected. Los Angeles Times

Starting in December, those looking to buy electric vehicles with a price tag of more than $60,000 won’t qualify for California’s clean-vehicle rebate. The California Air Resources Board approved the changes as part of a move to distribute the state’s resources toward lower-income communities, and away from wealthy buyers. Los Angeles Times

Bad air forces people inside in this coastal California town. “Is it a crisis or exaggeration?” San Luis Obispo Tribune


Many Sonoma County restaurant owners are struggling to rebound from the recent PG&E power outages and Kincade fire evacuations. Sonoma Magazine

A mural in a Pomona park has sparked backlash from the Native American community, who say it is culturally insensitive. Inland Daily Bulletin

A Sacramento woman is searching desperately for a tiny domesticated squirrel who went missing earlier this month. Keeping a squirrel as a pet is illegal in California, but the woman says that the pine squirrel she calls Squeakers “has only known indoor life and has never been outside.” Sacramento Bee

Today in late-stage capitalism: A Nutella-themed pop-up hotel is coming to Napa. Travel + Leisure


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 70. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: partly sunny, 58. San Jose: partly sunny, 65. Sacramento: partly sunny, 68. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Linda Kelly:

“First visited California in 1949. I was 9 years old and was so surprised at the anger the license tags from Oklahoma engendered. Even had someone spit on our car (a brand-new Chrysler New Yorker). All the result of the Dust Bowl days. Of course, when I visit now, so many that I meet have relatives in Oklahoma and want to visit about our state.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.