Pride and Prejudice

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

Until a few weeks before the start of Loi's freshman year of 1997-98, he had planned to attend Sunnyslope High. But several of Loi's Vietnamese friends attended Thunderbird. About a week before school started, Sebenik says, she took Loi to Thunderbird for registration.

There, the groundwork laid by Loi's advocates vanished.
"Now they're saying I didn't bring the paperwork that indicated he was special ed," she says. "I thought he already was in special ed. I spoke elaborately about him with Ms. Ryan [at Thunderbird]. She was very nice. . . . I told her Loi had a lot of special needs, but was a real hard worker. Undoubtedly, no one there looked at this file."

Cecilia Ryan says she has no recollection of this meeting.
Nobody can (or will) say why, but most of Loi's educational records--including test results that led to his learning-disability classification--never got to Thunderbird.

One glitch occurred when someone--possibly Loi or a family member--checked "no" next to a box on a form about his special-education history and needs.

The sequence of events troubles Washington Elementary School District special-education services director Craig Carter, who oversees Mountain View Elementary and Royal Palm Middle schools.

"Assuming that this teacher [Sebenik] said this kid has special needs, and was receiving special services--which he had been--those are all warning signs and should have triggered Thunderbird asking more questions," Carter says. "The whole idea is not to delay services for the child. The first question I would ask is, 'Where are the records?' I don't understand why they got a report card and nothing else."

Thunderbird's Jennifer Johnson says Leigh DeVoto--the school's ESL department head--met with Darla Sebenik, who insisted that Loi be placed in more-advanced classes.

"Leigh wanted to put him in beginning level ESL classes at the start of ninth grade," Johnson says "Darla Sebenik was at the meeting where this was discussed, and at no time was it mentioned that Loi needed to be screened for special education. I have no reason to disbelieve [DeVoto]."

Sebenik claims she never met with DeVoto.
"What a lie," Sebenik says. "I don't even know what Mrs. DeVoto looks like. There's no way that I'd try to move Loi ahead. I had done everything in my power to ensure he was at the proper level for him, which wasn't a high level. And, excuse me. Over the course of a year, Loi's shortcomings should have become completely obvious to any teacher."

DeVoto did not respond to an interview request.
Though Sebenik kept in touch with Loi, she was focused on her new class. She says she occasionally asked Loi to show her his report cards, but never saw one. If she had, the teacher says, "it would have told me he wasn't being served properly as a learning-disabled kid. His English wasn't advancing as it should have--nothing was."

But principal Johnson says Leigh DeVoto tells her Loi "could carry on a very normal conversation with her and the other students in class, and he could write. She believed it was a language problem and a motivational problem."

Warned Christine Root, in a 1994 article titled "Guide to Learning Disabilities for the English As a Second Language Classroom Practitioner":

"Many of us who teach ESL have found ourselves wondering at one time or another whether a certain student might have a learning disability that is impeding his or her progress in English. Yet many of us work in settings where we do not have ready access to consultation, guidance or referral advice and special-needs professionals."

Darla Sebenik, among others, could have provided credible guidance to anyone trying to assess Loi's progress. But it never happened.

"Apparently, Mrs. Sebenik knew much more about things than we knew she knew," says Jennifer Johnson. "It's a frustration that she wouldn't have made even a general inquiry to us about how Loi was doing."

Somehow, Loi got by. His freshman year at Thunderbird was uneventful. As usual, he minded his own business and obeyed his teachers. If Loi had run-ins with non-Asian students, he didn't tell anyone about them.

Near the end of his freshman year, Thunderbird testing placed Loi at a sixth-grade level for math and a fourth-grade level for other subjects.

Loi and his mother spent the summer in Vietnam. He then returned to Phoenix in late August, about a week after school had started, and registered with Darla Sebenik's help for his sophomore year at Thunderbird.

One school document indicates Loi's older brother, Hung, was to be contacted in case of emergency. A second questionnaire lists Sebenik as the emergency party, "other than parent."

Hung Nguyen was in California on the day Loi killed himself and couldn't be contacted. And Jennifer Johnson says the school wouldn't have contacted Nguyen or Sebenik that day, because officials already knew that Loi's father was home.

The same questionnaire asks, "Was the student in any special class at the former school?" Sebenik says she helped Loi fill out that form, and it shows that she checked off "Learning Disabilities."

Why Thunderbird officials didn't evaluate the "learning disabilities" notation in the paperwork is unknown.

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