LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — CBS2 has obtained autopsy reports for seven of nine USC students who died in a four-month time span during the fall semester of last year — deaths that sent shockwaves through the ritzy campus.
Three of those students died by suicide, one student was hit by two cars while walking on the 110 Freeway and three students died from fentanyl overdoses — a 21-year-old male who majored in cinematic arts, a 21-year-old male who belonged to a fraternity and a 27-year-old male grad student who died at an apartment complex.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the number of fentanyl-related deaths were on the rise for people between the ages of 15 and 24, with the steepest rise in fentanyl-related deaths among adults between the ages of 25 and 34.
Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid used for pain management and anesthesia that experts say can kill with an amount equal to a speck of dust.
Dr. Steve Shoptaw, a UCLA professor and clinical psychologist who researchers drug addiction, said “a few grains of fentanyl are going to take you out.”
And what was most concerning was that all the fentanyl-related student deaths were determined by the coroner to be accidental overdoses.
“You’ve got this concentration of deaths among students at USC, so the best way to understand this is, we’re in trouble,” Shoptaw said.
An undercover detective with the Los Angeles Police Department told CBSLA investigative reporter David Goldstein that he investigated the drugs on USC’s campus.
“Me and my unit were tasked to investigate the circumstances of the narcotics flowing to or near the campus,” he said. “We thought we found the big fish on campus.”
Nine days after the last student overdosed in November, police arrested 26-year-old Bill Hsiao. Investigators found drugs, an unregistered rifle and a USC ID card in his apartment just off campus.
Hsiao pleaded no contest to one count of possession for sale of a controlled substance and was sentenced to 49 days in jail. Police have not yet been able to tie him directly to the drugs that led to the deaths of the students, but the investigation is ongoing.
William Bower, special agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles, said people who bought off the streets could fall prey to fake pills which could contain fentanyl.
“I think the threat of counterfeit prescription drugs is new to us,” he said. “The big issue is it’s not the pill they think it is, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the overdoses.”
Dr. Shoptaw said the fentanyl overdoses at USC were so startling, it prompted changes at UCLA.
In response to this report, USC provided the following statement:
“Our sympathy goes out to the families and friends who are mourning loved ones lost last semester. We are providing resources to support our students through their grief and continue to augment the mental health services available to our students.
Like many large universities, we provide therapy and counseling to our students. Also like many universities, we have seen significant increases in the mental health needs of students, including increases in the number of students with depression and anxiety.
As the needs have increased through the years, we have expanded resources and continue to add more therapists. Over the past year we added 12 new counselors to our staff and we will be adding an additional 20 over the coming months. Through our counseling and mental health care, we have therapists and counselors who focus on issues including alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, loneliness and depression.
After a year of planning, we also opened a new floor in November 2019 at the USC Engemann Student Health Center dedicated to long-term mental health care for many students, becoming one of only a few universities nationwide to have long-term care available on campus. The work for this new initiative began a few years ago by the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, who also runs the practice.
USC also has been participating as a Jed Campus since 2018. The Jed Campus program guides our programs, policies and services to promote mental health and reduce suicide and drug use and abuse.
While drug abuse other than alcohol is uncommon on campus, USC has increased efforts to identify communities engaging in use and provide targeted education and intervention. We also launched a campus-wide education campaign focused on the availability of Narcan and the risks associated with the opioid fentanyl.
The pharmacies on campus stock naloxone, known commercially as Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an accidental drug overdose. Narcan is a covered benefit in the USC Student Health Insurance Plan, can be filled at USC Pharmacies on campus and is available to students who are concerned for classmates and friends. USC public safety officers also are trained to administer and are carrying Narcan.
In addition, students have the ability to reach out and ask for help for others they might be concerned about through the Trojans Care 4 Trojans program.
The health, safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, and the programs noted above – as well as others – are key to those efforts.”