So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Is USC's 'sketchy neighborhood' reputation fair? Depends on who you ask

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Su

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Suzan Nelson holds photos of Chinese foreign exchange students Ming Qu (bottom) and Ying Wu (top). The two USC students were murdered in April, about a mile from campus.

The University of Southern California faces an issue that all urban schools have: student safety. Located in a spot just southwest of Downtown L.A., the school has a reputation (deserved or not) for being in a "sketchy" zone. 

That fact dominated coversation around the school in April, when two graduate students from China were shot and killed in what police say was a carjacking gone wrong. Now, students are returning to a USC this week that comes with beefed up LAPD patrols, increased seminars on student safety and the continued presence of private security officers positioned in the most student-heavy blocks around USC.

In the last six months, University Park has had a rate of 226.4 crimes per 10,000 people. Adams-Normandie, to the west of campus, where the two students died, has a lower rate at 123.2 crimes per 10,000 people. By comparison, Downtown's rate was 125.2 crimes per 10,000 people.

Ask around campus, and you get vastly different assessments of the actual security situation in the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Joel Nesvadba, a USC graduate student, lives north of campus in one of the area's converted early 20th century houses. Nesvadba added locks to the gates around the house after a woman was attacked by an intruder a few doors down. On another occasion, a friend showed up at his door "white as a sheet" after another friend was stabbed in the area.

"I wish the neighborhood was better," he said. Though it also has an upside for the musician: plenty of places to play.

Jacqueline Hamilton, on the other hand, loves the area. Hamilton works at a local non-profit and lives west of campus. 

Spend some time here and you'll see how great it is, she says, claiming that the area gets attention "for all the bad stuff." 

Hamilton should know: her house was swarmed with media in April, after the deaths of Ming Qu and Ying Wu, two graduate students from China. Wu rented a room in Hamilton's building. 

She said the deaths were devastating, but they didn't shake her sense of security.

"My daughter was very wise," Hamilton said. "After a couple days of feeling very shaken, she had a sea change and said, 'I refuse to let some idiots come into my neighborhood and make me feel like I don't belong.' She just decided that she was going to feel safe."

Hamilton, who attended Yale University for law school, pointed out that many great schools are surrounded by densly populated, lower income neighborhoods. 

"It was my impression that Yale wanted to wall itself off," she said. "Here around USC, as I’ve lived here, I see they’ve gone in a 180 degree different direction."

USC has tutoring programs in the neighborhood, as well as coaching programs and a local hiring program. At least one senior, Andris Mattson, says that he's glad USC isn't self-contained.

"As soon as you build a wall, people get freaked out to step even one foot outside the wall," Mattson said. 

Specific crime stats for the neighborhoods around Yale were not immediately available. Yale University recently ranked 14th on a list compiled by the Daily Beast of America's top 25 "crime riddled" universities.

USC did not make the list.

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