Pride and Prejudice

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

Loi started his sophomore year at Thunderbird as a regular ESL student.
"That the boy's learning-disabilities record didn't follow him properly to high school probably complicates the story," says the Washington school district's Craig Carter, "[but] I don't know if the outcome would have been different. I'm not so sure I see the link between the boy's special-ed status and Thunderbird not knowing about that, and the [suicide]."

Thunderbird
Students and adults will be safe from physical and verbal abuse, and perceive that they and their property are safe.

--from a Thunderbird High manual

Thunderbird High principal Jennifer Johnson is on her way to an ESL class on a chilly January morning.

Her detractors in the Loi Nguyen case are wrong when they accuse Johnson of being impervious to criticism about the school. But she is defensive about comments she's heard at "conflict-resolution" meetings held since Loi died.

"We're not perfect, and we can get a lot better," Johnson says. "Do kids say things to each other that I wish they wouldn't say? Sure. Do I think that some of those things may on occasion be racial in nature? Yes. But do I think that there is racial tension on campus? No. That's where our understanding [with the detractors] seems to fall apart.

"Kids get harassed because they're too fat or too skinny, too smart or too dumb. That's the nature of being a teenager. If we had 1,700 blue-eyed, blond kids, give them a day and they'll find something to tease each other about. But I don't discount for a second how much it hurts someone to see graffiti about their race or origin, or to hear an ugly remark."

Of Thunderbird's 1,738 students, 79--or 4.5 percent--are Asian. More than 75 percent of the student body is white, and a little more than 12 percent is Latino. Sixty-five black students, or 3.7 percent, are enrolled at the school.

Most of Thunderbird's teachers also are white, and there are no Asians on staff. The overwhelmingly white demographic presents a stumbling block for many new students, says senior Nikki Tanner, who is white herself.

"You meet kids who've never had a pencil in their hands before and have been thrown into this crazy cultural and school situation," she says. "It shouldn't be any big surprise that there are going to be some major difficulties for them and for some of those around them."

Adds senior Tim Stempel, "A lot of kids in this school are upper-middle-class white kids who have had no minorities in their lives. All of a sudden, you've got to deal with people who look different and are different. Some students take the time to do it, and it's worth it. Others don't."

Ivana Adzic, a Bosnian-born junior who emigrated two years ago, says, "When you are an ESL student, you're different than everyone else right there." She doesn't have to add that being different probably is the hardest thing any teen must endure.

Jennifer Johnson says she knows what Adzic and other students are talking about.

"We have students who come to our doorstep with no education," says the principal, a Phoenix native in her eighth year at Thunderbird's helm. "It's tough to navigate high school, even if English is your first language. There are so many questions, such as, 'Will I have friends? Will people like me?' The normal anxieties. Imagine yourself dropping into the Sudan or Vietnam and trying to make it as a student."

Leigh DeVoto's ESL class is a veritable United Nations, with students from Bosnia, Central America, Vietnam and other lands. The ESL department head runs an upbeat, productive class.

DeVoto has posted her class rules:
"Speak English!"
"Respect others!"
The class has been reading a short story.
"What is this, 'fainted'?" one boy asks.

"It's when you go to sleep when you don't want to," DeVoto replies. "It happens when you're scared or sick."

"Good," the student says. "New word."
"For an ESL kid, the learning curve is so much steeper," Johnson says later. "They get a crash course, and we put them in with other kids as soon as possible. But the social issues for them are exactly the same as for American-born kids--they just have to figure out how things work here."

The Asian ESL students interviewed by New Times say they admire their teachers and generally are happy to be at Thunderbird. Still, several of the Asian teens say they have experienced racism, both overt and subtle, both on and off campus.

Almost apologetically, they add that it's not common, and they're very grateful to be in the States. Interestingly, the students say it's their job, not the school's, to narrow the cultural divides, though they're not certain how to do so.

The Asian students were hurt and baffled by Loi Nguyen's suicide, but don't much want to talk about it.

"We're looking to the front, not to the back," says a Thunderbird junior, who asked not to be identified because "it will make me sound like I am mad or angry. I'm just sad about Loi. He was a nice boy, fun, try hard, doesn't bother anyone."

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