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Shooting renews worries about security at USC

Wounding of four non-students at a campus party raises concerns about safety. An official calls event 'isolated.'

November 01, 2012|By Kate Mather, Andrew Blankstein and Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

The Halloween party was going strong at the heart of the USC campus. Inside the student center, about 400 people danced to a DJ under rave lighting while more than 100 milled around outside trying to get into the event, which boasted tight security.

"Strict off-duty officers plus campus [police] = no worries," one online ad for the party said.

But about 11:45 p.m., gunshots were fired in the crowd outside, not far from the university's Tommy Trojan statue. Students screamed and ran for safety. Four people were wounded, and the campus was placed on lockdown.

PHOTOS: Shooting at USC Halloween party

The shooting left the USC campus on edge Thursday, coming six months after two graduate students were fatally shot in a robbery less than a mile from campus. Taken together, the violence poses new challenges to USC's image at a time when prospective students are considering where to apply for college.

Los Angeles police and USC officials said the shooting stemmed from an argument between two people who were not affiliated with USC. The gunman, who was not identified, opened fire on a former Crenshaw High School football star, Geno Hall. He was hit several times but is expected to survive. Three other bystanders, none of them students, also suffered non-life-threatening wounds.

Authorities said two suspects were chased by campus safety officers and taken into custody nearby. A gun was recovered in the same area.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias said in a statement that the school was "carefully assessing and reviewing all of the university's policies regarding visitors and events held on campus" but added that the risk of such violence on campus was very low. He later told The Times in an email that he would announce policy changes next week. Another school official described the shooting as "totally an isolated incident."

"Although this incident did not involve USC students and was resolved quickly, it strikes at the heart of the Trojan Family," Nikias said.

College admissions experts said campus crime is a significant factor in parents' and students' decisions on where to apply and can tarnish a school's image. But Barmak Nassirian, a higher education policy consultant, didn't expect two shootings alone to do significant damage to USC's brand.

"It takes more than two incidents," he said. "People understand that random crime has become a fact of life when it is not very frequent. But if it becomes very frequent, that can affect parents' willingness to accept some venues."

Still, the shooting left some parents anxious.

Don St. Claire's daughter, Simone, is a freshman who was standing outside the campus center when the shooting occurred. She called him early Thursday to say she was OK and asked him not to make her transfer to another school.

He assured her he wouldn't.

"I don't expect, nor would I want, a locked-down campus where everyone walks through metal detectors to get on and off campus," said St. Claire, who lives in Redwood City, Calif. "I'm disturbed by it, but I'm also at a little bit of a loss at what could have been done differently."

After the two graduate students were killed in April, USC and the Los Angeles Police Department announced that they were adding more police and security cameras to the area in response to criticism that they had not done enough to protect students in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

But the Halloween shooting underscores how hard it can be to prevent violence on a sprawling open campus, even during events that have security. USC is surrounded by neighborhoods that have traditionally suffered from higher rates of crime, though crime in those areas has declined significantly over the last decade.

Urban campuses like USC have particular problems balancing security against the open environment that universities want to project, said Christopher Blake, associate director of the International Assn. of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

"It's an ongoing issue institutions are figuring out," he said.

USC statistics show that the vast majority of campus crime involves drugs, alcohol violations and burglaries. Last year, the university reported only one aggravated assault and five robberies on campus.

Still, isolated crimes targeting students off campus have made headlines. In 2008, USC sprinter and now Olympic silver medalist Bryshon Nellum was shot and wounded after leaving a Halloween party near campus. The same year, a film student was fatally stabbed in a fight after he slammed an apartment complex gate near the university. Last year, two USC students were shot and wounded when several students confronted a stranger who appeared to be stealing items at a nearby apartment complex.

Wednesday's shooting occurred outside a "Freak or Greek" party put on by LA HYPE in association with the USC Black Student Assembly. Officials said more than a dozen safety officers were on the scene, both inside and outside the party.

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