Pride and Prejudice

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

* A police officer who allegedly spread misinformation that Asians in the fight were known gangbangers, when evidence of that was shaky at best.

* Those who claim Thunderbird High authorities were callous about the needs of Loi and other students of Asian descent. The detractors include Loi's teachers at schools he had attended before Thunderbird.

* Thunderbird High officials, who say they did their best in an unprecedented situation at their school.

* The Nguyens (pronounced nu-WIN), whose 1992 odyssey from Vietnam to Phoenix is filled with triumph and heartache.

"The big issue for me," says Loi's seventh-grade teacher, Joan Bergdolt, "is how a public institution deals with a foreign student who is obviously a special-ed kid, and how--in this case--they failed to serve a student. In Loi's mind, he had no one at his school to turn to for help."

Responds Thunderbird High principal Jennifer Johnson: "When someone says, 'Thunderbird, you screwed up big time,' I'll listen to you. I'll agree this is a tragedy on a hundred levels. And I don't deny, never have, that we have to get better at what we do. But we're very sensitive to the statements that we disregarded Loi. His death has touched this school more deeply than I can say, and has made us ask ourselves a lot of questions."

One unresolved question is why Loi wasn't considered a special-education student at Thunderbird, after being diagnosed as "severely learning disabled" in eighth grade.

"Loi Nguyen is eligible for special-education services . . . due to a near-drowning incident in Vietnam at age 5," a December 1996 psychological report concluded. "His educational needs cannot be met in the regular classroom."

Would Loi's placement in special-education courses have made a difference in how school officials and police handled things after he was implicated in the brawl? Might Loi still be alive if he had a better support system at the school?

The first question has been subject to debate. The second is unanswerable. So, too, is the question of why Loi apparently didn't reveal his desperate mental state to anybody--not his parents, siblings, friends or teachers.

It's hard to quarrel with the assessment of Darla Sebenik, Loi's sixth-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School:

"Try to picture the hopelessness this boy must have felt. He's by himself, trying to answer questions in English from authority figures, including a cop. He's just been kicked out of school, and he knows his family isn't going to be sympathetic. He had tried to talk with me--someone he trusted--the night before, but he couldn't get it out. This is what desperation is all about."

The Meeting
It's January, and about 35 people have gathered in a conference room at Phoenix College. The meeting is the fourth convened by an Asian-Pacific support group since Loi Nguyen's death.

"The tragedy of Loi Nguyen's death really struck many of our hearts," Naomi Story, the group's president, says. "It is an emotionally packed situation."

Those in attendance include four members of Loi's family--his parents, younger brother Lan and older sister Cuom. No one has provided the Nguyens a translator, so 14-year-old Lan tries to keep his parents informed.

This is the first time Miet Tran has spoken publicly about her son's death. Constantly touching her heart, she vents for more than a minute before Lan translates.

"If he [Loi] don't fight, gonna get hurt," Lan says. "Why didn't school call her and say what happened? The cop and the principal took him home like he was doing something bad--no translator--I think that was wrong."

Boi Nguyen sits stoically in his Los Angeles Lakers jacket. He is wracked by a coughing jag and has to leave the room for several minutes.

Miet continues for 90 seconds more. Lan chooses a briefer translation: "She doesn't know what happened to Loi. I think she just wants an answer."

Cuom Tran says she can't understand why principal Johnson wouldn't meet with her at Thunderbird after the suicide. Johnson doesn't reply.

(Later, Johnson provides an excuse common to all sides in this story: Nobody had told her. She says she was in meetings with faculty and students at the time. No one had informed her that Cuom was waiting to see her. She says she understands why Cuom is upset, and will apologize in a less volatile setting.)

Says John Gray, a Nguyen family friend and mentor to many Asian youths, "What's important is the family has lost a son, a fine human being. I have to stop spending all my time--we all do--trying to affix blame."

The meeting has taken a turn for the worse. Passions are rising, not subsiding.

Phoenix police lieutenant Jim Pina, who oversees the department's assault investigations unit, says Loi is the only Asian positively identified as a suspect in the fight. But no one, Pina reiterates, is "accepting anyone's word as gospel."

"Could not the Vietnamese also be victims?" Gray asks him. "You don't know who really started the fight."

Gray launches into a brief history of Vietnam--its invaders, wars, communist regime and its natives' ingrained fear of police.

"Just having contact with the police will in many cases upset the families of a young person terribly," Gray says. "To be questioned even just as a witness is a calamity of major proportions to families in the Vietnamese community. . . . It's not true that they [Asians] have nothing to fear from you."

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