LOS ANGELES -- The email arrived near midnight Saturday. USC President Carol Folt informed the campus community about a recent series of student deaths.
She said she wanted to keep the university informed, but also clear up rumors and misinformation.
"People are searching for answers and information as we attempt to make sense of these terrible losses," Folt said. "There is a great deal of speculation about the causes of these deaths and most are being attributed to suicide. This is not correct."
Faced with the deaths of nine students since Aug. 24, USC administrators are 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.
A campus of 47,500 students, USC experiences four to 15 student deaths in a typical school year, officials said. Last year, six were reported.
Officials have confirmed that three students this year died by suicide. In some cases, the cause of death is undetermined; in others, families did not want details disclosed, they said.
Universities don't have rule books, nor is there any scientific research, about how to navigate addressing multiple student deaths and suicides, said Dr. Paul Nestadt, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor. Officials are likely acting with an abundance of caution so as not to prompt a suicide contagion, he said. The effect is defined by the federal Department of Health and Human Services as an increase in suicidal behavior following exposure to such a death within a family or peer group.
"They are in a bind for sure," Nestadt said.
Student Body President Trenton Stone, a junior originally from Salt Lake City, said all eight members of his executive board, including himself, knew at least one of the people who had died over the last three months. The first death, of an 18-year-old freshman, was reported in late August, two days before classes began.
"It's definitely been a really tough semester for us," Stone said. "There's a lot going on, and everyone's asking the same question: What can we be doing?"