Pride and Prejudice

Nobody can say why Loi Nguyen fell through the cracks. All they can say is they're sorry.

When you are young, you need your father. When you are old, you need your sons.

--Vietnamese proverb

This much about Loi Nguyen's last hours may be recounted with reasonable certainty:

The 17-year-old awoke on September 24 at his parents' home near 19th Avenue and Dunlap in Phoenix. It was a Thursday. Loi and his younger brother, Lan, prepared for a day of school at Thunderbird High, where Loi was a sophomore and Lan was a freshman.

Their older sister, Cuom, had left for work at an assembly plant. An older brother, Hung, was in California.

The boys' father, Boi, was eating breakfast at the kitchen table. Their mother, Miet Tran, asked Loi if he needed any money. He said he didn't. She told her sons to be careful, and sent them on their way.

Loi was a good-looking kid with dark, expressive eyes. Although he stood only five-foot-five, he was lean and somehow seemed almost lanky. He was reserved around most adults and strangers, concealing the part of him that played practical jokes on his pals, listened to rap music and loved to play with the family karaoke machine.

But Loi wasn't himself at the bus stop that morning. Somberly and without elaborating, he told another student that this would be his last day at Thunderbird, and he'd be transferring to Washington High.

The bus got to the north Phoenix campus before 8 a.m. Soon after that, assistant principals Cecilia Ryan and Robert Shupp summoned Loi to ask him about his role in a racially charged off-campus brawl that had occurred three days earlier.

Three students were claiming Loi had wielded a nunchaku during the September 21 melee, which pitted youngsters of Asian descent against non-Asians. Three non-Asians had been hospitalized briefly after the clash.

The evidence suggests that an Anglo kid precipitated the clash by hurling racial slurs at several Asian students--most of them Vietnamese--during a previous on-campus incident.

But Thunderbird's administrators didn't know yet about the slurs. What they did know was that non-Asians were claiming the Asians had flashed gang signs and shouted gang slogans during the fracas. The prospect of "gang" violence startled the school officials.

Loi had immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1992. His command of English was limited, but the administrators say he communicated adequately with them.

Assistant principal Ryan says Loi denied being involved in the fight, but provided a flimsy alibi. School officials suspended him on the spot, pending further investigation.

The administrators called in Michelle Dalton, a Phoenix police officer then assigned to Thunderbird. Dalton read Loi his juvenile Miranda warnings. The boy said he wanted a lawyer.

For reasons still drenched in controversy, school officials determined Loi's presence on the campus posed danger to himself and others. He would have to leave.

The officials say they tried unsuccessfully to secure a Vietnamese interpreter to tell Loi's parents what was going on. Officer Dalton and assistant principal Ryan then drove Loi home in a patrol car, after--Ryan says--her secretary called the boy's father via a telephone translation service.

Boi Nguyen was at his front door as the squad car pulled up. A diminutive man who lost a leg during the Vietnam War, Boi was in a motorized cart, en route to visit a neighbor.

Ryan and Dalton asked Loi to tell his father why they were there. Boi says his son told him he'd been suspended for truancy, but didn't mention the fight. The authorities left.

Boi says he was irate with Loi, but told him only that he'd be home in a while. He handed Loi the house keys.

He returned less than 30 minutes later, but the front door was locked. Boi knocked. No answer. He hobbled on his crutches to the back of his three-bedroom house. The back door was locked, too.

Boi looked through a window into his own bedroom, and saw his son lying on the bed. He saw blood next to Loi's head, and a handgun a few feet away.

Loi had shot himself with a gun Boi kept in his bedroom.
A neighbor called police, who arrived a few minutes later. Loi was pronounced dead at the scene. Postmortem testing found no alcohol or drugs in the boy's body.

Officers found Loi's handwritten suicide note on a living-room table. Composed in English, the barely intelligible missive included an apology to his father for embarrassing the family. It thanked his teachers for being nice. And it urged his brother Hung to keep his younger brother Lan away from gangs. Loi instructed that a friend should inherit his backpack.

Four months later, Loi Nguyen's fatal decision haunts many people. But this is not a case of good versus evil. It is a story rife with pride and prejudice, of cultural and racial misconceptions, ignorance and mistrust.

At the center of the storm is Loi Nguyen, a boy who simply lost his cool during a fight he hadn't started. Facing suspension and a police investigation, Loi apparently couldn't cope with the humiliation, to himself and--this cannot be overstated--to his immigrant family.

Other key characters include:
* An Anglo teen whose taunts prompted the brawl that led to Loi's suicide. Beyond that incidence, Loi and his Asian peers had been subjected to such taunts as "gook" and "chink."

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