By Amy Silverman
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Johnson says she wants Thunderbird to be more that just a place for newcomers to learn English. But she concedes that helping her foreign-born students cope with the schisms has proved a tall order.
"There's so many cultural questions," she says.
"If a student doesn't look you into the face directly, is that because he or she has been brought up that way? That's something we need to know, need to know better. We can't expect them to magically assimilate. We have to know what we need to know about them before they start at the school."
The off-campus brawl that led to Loi Nguyen's September 24 suicide started over a game of hackysack.
The hackysack incident occurred about a week earlier, during a lunch break on Thunderbird's campus of 1,780 students. Some ESL kids mix with the rest of the student body, but most gravitate toward people of their own backgrounds.
"You've got a bunch of kids ages 13 to 18, and you're asking them to get along," says Thunderbird senior Nikki Tanner. "That's tension right there. And everyone is in close quarters, which is more tension. Then you've got conflicting ideas about everything. And kids make mistakes--I'll vouch for that one."
Some of the Asian boys played hackysack at the same spot almost every day, near a snack bar. On this September day, according to interviews and police reports, the Asians had a short but crucial run-in with Jonathan Duffy, a 120-pound Anglo sophomore known as a smart-alecky "skater"--a kid who favors skateboards as a mode of transportation and statement.
"The kid does have the kind of attitude which he'll say what's on his mind," says his aunt, Susan Grant, whose own 17-year-old daughter, Brandy Walmer, was a major player in the subsequent brawl. "He knows that sometimes his mouth will get him in trouble, but that doesn't stop him."
Duffy tells New Times the hackysack just missed his head, which infuriated him. He says he already was in a foul mood because of an argument with his girlfriend, and he got mouthy.
"They started laughing at me and blabbing in their language," the 16-year-old says of the Asian students. "I think, 'What is this?' I tell them, 'Shut the you-know-what up! This is America!' They go, 'Fuck America!' It goes back and forth, and then I walked away."
Duffy adds that Loi Nguyen was one of the students participating in the hackysack game.
John Gray, a retired educator and an advocate for the Vietnamese students, says the incident wasn't isolated.
"There was almost-constant hate-type stuff against the Asian kids," he says. "They'd deliberately bump the Asians on the sidewalk, then say, 'Get out of my way, chink,' things like that. The Asians didn't complain to anyone then--they truly don't like to draw attention to themselves."
The buzz on campus a few days later was that there would be a fight after school between the Asians and non-Asians. It nearly happened that Friday, just outside school property.
"Jonathan wanted to jump the Asian kids," says his cousin Brandy Walmer. "And they were yelling stuff at him, too. Then an Asian kid threw something at one of my girlfriends and called her a b-word. A bat got pulled out--not by the kid who died [Loi]--and I got shoved pretty hard."
Students say that fight ended before it really started because a police car came by. Both sides apparently agreed to settle things after school the next Monday, at nearby Thunderbird Park.
Exactly how that clash ended in a neighborhood cul-de-sac September 21 is controverted. This much is fairly certain:
* At least six Asians battled at least six non-Asians in a bloody fight that lasted several minutes.
* Both sides called friends from outside Thunderbird High for back-up before the fight. Some of the outsiders on both sides were ex-Thunderbird students.
* Some Asians used nunchakus and other dangerous weapons during the fight. A few non-Asians used skateboards and, possibly, brass knuckles.
* Authorities have identified some non-Asians in the melee--none who were then attending Thunderbird High--as having known gang affiliations. It's still unclear if any of the Asians were gang-affiliated, even though some threw gang signs and yelled "Asian Pride" at the scene. (Asian Pride is a gang composed mostly of Laotians.)
* Loi Nguyen participated in the fight. Phoenix police sources say he had no known gang affiliations.
* Three non-Asians were hospitalized briefly with injuries suffered during the fight. The back of Jonathan Duffy's head was split open, Brandy Walmer sustained a deep bruise near her right eye, and Joe Smith suffered cuts and deep bruises. None of the Asians apparently sought medical treatment.
Even some of those facts have been subject to dispute. And police accounts differ drastically in key instances from those collected by New Times.
For example, a report filed by Officer Michelle Dalton says in part:
"Brandy said that Joe [Smith] and one of the Asian males started fighting when approximately ten other Asian males jumped on Joe. She said they were all hitting him with the dowels and the nunchakus. Brandy said that Jonathan [Duffy] tried to pull some of the Asian boys off of Joe and he got hit in the back of the head by [Loi], whom Brandy recognized from school. Brandy believes that [Loi] was holding one of the pairs of nunchakus. Brandy said that she stepped forward to help Jonathan when [Loi] swung the nunchakus backwards, striking her in the left side of the face. She recognized [the other Asian boy] from school and saw him hitting Joe with a metal dowel."