By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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."
* 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."
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."
Pina replies, "For you to say this is completely untrue, is based on biases, and I can't help that."
John Gray announces that Loi Nguyen's funeral cost about $7,000. The family has received about $1,600 in donations from the "community," he notes.
(Gray later expressed surprise when told Thunderbird High's faculty donated $400 to defray funeral costs. Jennifer Johnson gave an envelope containing cash to Boi Nguyen at Loi's funeral.)
Naomi Story adjourns the meeting after more than two hours, after scheduling another session for March.
Miet Tran turns on a videotape. It shows scenes of her return last summer to Vietnam, her first visit since emigrating in 1992.
She took the two-month trip with her son, Loi, reintroducing him to a world he'd left behind as a 10-year-old. On the tape, Loi rides a bicycle down a dirt lane, goofs with his cousins, stands solemnly with relatives in front of an ancient pagoda.
"He wanted to know how we lived over there," Miet Tran says of Loi. "Three weeks after we got back, he died."
Miet retains her sweet disposition despite the tragedies she has endured. Though neither she nor her husband, Boi, can read or write, both are richly educated in the ways of survival.
They have created a shrine to Loi in their living room. It includes his photo, a string of lights. Miet has put mementos of Loi's short life on the shrine--an award from Royal Palm Middle School, cans of Coke and coconut juice, a school notebook.
Miet lights incense, then fetches her husband a glass of water. Boi bellows occasionally in his foghorn of a voice.
Asked how they got to the States, he says, "Not that easy."
Boi grew up in central Vietnam, and raised six children with a previous wife before being drafted into the South Vietnamese army. Captured by the Viet Cong in 1972, Boi says he later escaped by swimming a river with his arms still bound behind him (he shows the scars that encircle his forearms). He hid for a week before friendly forces found him.
A year after his escape, Boi lost his right leg above the knee after stepping on a land mine. Around that time, he learned that his wife and children had been killed by a bomb in his home village.
In April 1975, the Vietnam War ended. The victorious Communists later relocated millions of people in so-called "reeducation camps." Boi was shipped to a camp--a makeshift rural city, really--holding a million people. There, he met Miet Tran, a widow with three kids, including one fathered by an American soldier.
The two became a couple: Miet labored in the rice fields--backbreaking work--while Boi fished for food. Boi and Miet married in the late 1970s, and had three boys together--Hung, Loi and Lan. For years, Miet Tran says, they lived in a little hut with no electricity or running water.
In 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which promised a new life to half-Viets--pariahs in their homelands--who could prove American parentage. Miet's son, Dung Tran, met that criterion. The Nguyen family arrived in Phoenix in November 1992.
"To see a city so big is very strange," Miet Tran says, smiling at the memory. "You feel when you get off the plane like you are lost."
Cuom Tran was 23 when the family emigrated. She found work in Phoenix at a bakery and a tailor shop. "I can work very hard because I want to," she says. "I wanted to come here to learn and to work, and to work some more."
Cuom became more parent than sister to her two younger brothers. She embraced her role without complaint.
As the family's breadwinner (her parents are on social security), Cuom found two better-paying jobs--one at a north Phoenix assembly plant, the other (on weekends) at an insurance agency.
Cuom also takes English classes at night, and her grasp of her adopted language is excellent, and improving daily.
In 1995, just three years after landing in Phoenix, Cuom Tram bought her family a home on 18th Avenue.
American educators long have known that children raised in Asian cultures tend to work tirelessly, cherish family life and keep an unabiding faith for bright futures. Education is considered essential, even to those who have been deprived of it.
Most Asian-born youngsters are excited to speak English and to assimilate, and their zest makes for a remarkable number of success stories.
But it soon became apparent to his teachers that Loi would never be a star student. It wasn't for lack of effort. Loi's teachers in grammar and middle schools remember him as a quiet, respectful kid who worked hard, and rarely lost his temper.
He just couldn't keep up with his peers in the classroom.
"Loi would think he was on to something," says veteran Royal Palm Middle School teacher Joan Bergdolt, "but the next day, forget it. He couldn't retain what he learned. But his effort was always there, always."
Darla Sebenik is in her classroom during a lunch break at Mountain View Elementary School, where she teaches English As a Second Language to youngsters from around the world.
Sebenik often goes beyond the classroom to help her students. One of them was Loi Nguyen, who had been in the country for only a few years when he attended her sixth-grade class.
"He was strong, sweet and very caring," Sebenik says.
But she quickly recognized something wasn't right with Loi.
"His mother didn't understand what was going on with him," Sebenik says. "She'd say, 'I tell Loi to do this or do that, and he doesn't do it, or doesn't do it right.' He was a learning-disabled boy."
Loi's first teacher at Mountain View was Donna Hicks, who chronicled the challenges that the boy presented in a textbook by Sarah Huyvaert titled Reports From the Classroom--Cases for Reflection. Hicks contributed a chapter to the book, published in 1994.
"I was asked to write about my most difficult student, and Loi was my clear choice," says Hicks, who now teaches at Lookout Mountain Elementary.
In the chapter, Hicks writes that she had four Vietnamese students in her fifth-grade class, including 10-year-old Loi (whom she dubbed "Vinh" in the book for privacy reasons):
"Vinh was different because he was not even literate in his own language and had practically no education. . . . When he came to my class, Vinh didn't even know how to hold a pencil, open a book, or speak or understand a word of English. It was apparent that he had never before sat at a desk.
"My students are used to new students from other countries and they are always happy to 'Americanize' these students, but they soon saw that Vinh was different. His unpredictable scratching made them uncomfortable. He had no idea of what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the classroom--or any public setting."
Hicks said it was too early to tell if Loi was learning disabled, and that she and volunteers provided him extra help during those first difficult months. By the end of fifth grade, she wrote, "He became more culturally aware and was able to get along with other students."
Hicks says she last saw Loi Nguyen a few years ago.
"It took a long time for Loi to be properly diagnosed as learning disabled," she says, "and it only happened because his teachers that came after me such as Mrs. Sebenik were relentless."
Loi's elementary school teachers learned his history from his mother. Miet Tran related a near-drowning incident when Loi was a young boy, and described how Loi was pulled unconscious from a river. American doctors later determined that the near-drowning likely caused permanent brain damage.
"He could appear as if he was doing better than he was because he had the love and support of his family and many of his teachers," Sebenik says. "But the other kids knew. I would sit them down and say, 'Loi was hurt when he was real young, but you can't tell on the outside. Now, we have to find a way to help him learn.'"
Sebenik expressed her fears about Loi in writing as early as May 1995--at the end of his sixth-grade year.
"Loi puts forth great effort to follow through," she wrote to her supervisors, "but has great problems completing assignments. . . . If we don't get Loi the diagnostic help he needs now, he could easily fall thru the cracks next fall [at Royal Palm Middle School]."
Sebenik explains, "Loi had already developed incredible strategies for himself to accommodate. His intuition about what his teachers wanted from him was unreal at times. He usually answered when you speak to him, and always with respect. He never made waves."
Loi was fortunate that Joan Bergdolt was one of his seventh-grade teachers at Royal Palm.
"He seemed like such a happy kid, though he always kept to himself," says Bergdolt, an ESL teacher at Royal Palm since 1984. "I can still see him, riding three on a bicycle with his little brother, Lan, and a friend, somehow keeping their balance."
Bergdolt and other teachers wanted Loi classified as "learning disabled," so he could be placed in special classes.
In January 1996, Royal Palm psychologist Oscar Meehling wrote of Loi: "In his three years in our public-school system, he has made essentially no progress, which is unusual for immigrating Oriental students. His teachers indicate that he is well-motivated, but is quite frustrated in his progress."
Dr. Dale Schultz tested Loi as he neared the end of seventh grade. The doctor referred in his report to the near-drowning incident as an underlying cause of his classroom woes.
Schultz concluded in July 1996 that Loi's language barrier wasn't the prime cause of his learning woes: "He is in the 7th grade of public school, but it is clear that he is learning impaired. . . ."
Before starting eighth grade, Royal PaLm certified Loi as "severe learning disabled, speech and language delayed."
The classification entitled Loi to an Individual Education Plan (IEP), tailored to his special needs. Loi's IEP was crafted by two special-ed teachers, a school psychologist and a speech therapist. Miet Tran attended the late-1996 meetings, aided by a Vietnamese interpreter.
Loi's eighth-grade records show he was performing at a fourth-grade level in math and at a third-grade level in reading and writing. His final report card from Royal Palm in April 1997 indicated he was working "below grade level" in the classes proscribed by his IEP. But his effort in those classes was deemed "satisfactory" or "outstanding."
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.
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]."
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:
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."
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."
But Brandy tells New Times that Dalton got it wrong. It was the other Asian student who hit her, not Loi, she repeats. Showing a photo of herself as proof, Brandy adds that the weapon struck her near the right eye, not her left eye, as the officer reported.
"I didn't make any racial comments, I swear, though some were made," Brandy says. "I just told them to put down their bats and fight like men, stop being pussies. Then I got hit, though I know it was an accident."
Another Phoenix officer interviewed Joe Smith on the afternoon of the brawl. Her report says Smith told her that "while walking home from Thunderbird High School with some of his friends today . . . he was confronted by approximately 15 Asian males, in which eight of these Asian males assaulted him with nunchakus and steel pipes. . . . The suspects threatened to assault his girlfriend, Brandy Walmer, at which point Joseph stepped in to defend her."
Joe tells New Times that the fight was prearranged, and he'd rushed into the cul-de-sac in his car when he saw the Asians pull in there. And Joe admits Brandy tried to come to his aid, not the other way around, when the brawl started.
Jonathan Duffy claims another student--not Brandy or Joe--shouted racial slurs at the Asians seconds before the fight began.
"This kid who didn't even know what was happening was screaming at them, 'Get out of the car, you fuckin' gooks,'" Duffy says. "Things were starting to get out of hand."
Duffy says Joe Smith wanted to know which of the Asians--it wasn't Loi Nguyen--allegedly had shoved his girlfriend, Brandy during the previous Friday's clash.
"Joe then just took off after the guy, just slammed him down on the ground, and everyone just scattered," Duffy says. "The Asians started pulling out bats and clubs and metal things. I got hit in the back of the head with something almost right away."
Another police report--not Dalton's--says "the victims were verbally harassing the suspects by calling out racial slurs. . . . The day of the incident, the group of white males and females were at the location on Surrey, and when the Asians arrived, they began yelling, 'Get out of the car, chink.' The suspects got out and the fight began."
After the Fight
"We didn't have much experience with this particular set of dynamics," says Thunderbird principal Jennifer Johnson. "There were the references to 'Asian Pride' that we heard about, and the fact that the other side also had some history--they weren't just poor, innocent little blond-haired, blue-eyed waifs. At Thunderbird, we have boys who fight over girls, and girls who fight over boys. But not much in the way of gang activity."
School officials started their investigation into the clash the next day, Tuesday, September 22. Brandy Walmer came to school with her mother, Susan Grant, and tentatively identified several Asians from the yearbook whom she said had taken part in the fight--including Loi Nguyen.
Grant, who attended Thunderbird in the late 1970s, says Phoenix officer Dalton told her what she knew about Brandy's assailants:
"Their lady officer kept telling us that she'd worked the Sunnyslope area and that most of these Asian kids were being bused in from there, and that Asian kids in the gangs are cruel, heartless and ruthless, let alone care that they were killing a woman or a child. I didn't know what was going on around there."
(Dalton didn't respond to numerous requests for comment on this or other aspects of this story. Detective Mike McCullough, a Phoenix police spokesman, says Dalton denies making that particular statement to Grant.)
Loi performed a charade for his parents that morning of going to school, though he never got there. He also didn't come home for dinner, which they say had never happened before. Around 10 that night, Lan called Darla Sebenik at home.
Sebenik drove to the Nguyens' home, and sat with Miet Tran as Cuom and Lan rode around looking for Loi. They returned home with him about 11 p.m. or so, saying they'd found him at a West Bethany Home Road arcade.
"Loi wouldn't look at me when he came in, wouldn't say hello," Sebenik says. "I said, 'Thank God you're okay.' Cuom was ballistic. They went in the other room. . . . Later, I sat beside her for a long time. She was shaking. I told her to take deep breaths. I said, 'No matter how upset you are, you must support Loi.' But I still didn't know what was happening with him."
Cuom says she didn't know, either.
"I didn't want him staying out late because that's not good," she says. "I didn't know then about any fight, or that he had missed school."
Loi again skipped school Wednesday. Brandy Walmer says she returned to classes that day sporting a deep facial bruise, and got the sympathy of dozens of fellow students.
"A lot of my guy friends said they'd go after the Asians for hitting a girl," she says. "I said it had been an accident. I felt stupid for being babied. That's when a lot of the real racist stuff started on campus--the football players huddled them [Asian students], so did the skaters."
"Huddling" occurs when a large group of people surround a much-smaller group.
"It looked like everybody in the school, all the mean people, would surround the Asians to scare them, then walk away," Jonathan Duffy says. "Everybody was pissed."
One Asian student who requested anonymity says he saw an Anglo kid spit on an Asian during this time. Neither Asian complained to school officials.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, Loi's brother, Lan, came by Darla Sebenik's classroom at Mountain View. He told her it was important that she speak with Loi that night.
"I said I'd come over," Sebenik recalls. "He said, 'Just give him a call, okay?' 'Sure, Lan.' Then I grabbed him by the shoulders. 'Will you tell me what is going on with Loi?' He wouldn't."
Sebenik and Loi spoke by phone that evening.
"He just wouldn't tell me what was going on," Sebenik says. "I told him I'd call the school tomorrow and talk with someone. He said, 'Okay, Mrs. S. See you tomorrow.' But his words sounded so hollow to me. I was so worried about him."
Within a day, Loi Nguyen was dead.
Loi's Last Day
For Cecilia Ryan, the challenges that evolved on Thursday, September 24, were unparalleled.
"As much as some people in the community don't believe us, we haven't had incidents like this on this campus," says Ryan, Thunderbird's dean of discipline and attendance. "Yes, we've had allegations of racial and sexual harassment--we are a group of 1,780 teenagers; they fight and do things typical to any high school. But a tragedy of humongous proportions like this would become . . ."
Ryan doesn't fit the mold of a prototypical disciplinary principal. She is pleasant, calm and has a sense of humor. One component of her job is to keep the campus as safe as possible, and that became her prime concern that Thursday.
Darla Sebenik says she left a phone message at Thunderbird sometime before 8 a.m., asking for someone to call her about Loi Nguyen. School officials say they never got it.
Shortly after school started, someone saw Loi on campus. He was called to the office, where Ryan and fellow assistant principal Robert Shupp questioned him about the fight.
They did so in English, without an interpreter, principal Jennifer Johnson says, "because they determined he had sufficient sophistication to understand what was going on. I'm not trying to minimize the stress he or anyone in his position would have been feeling. But they needed to hear his side of the story."
Loi's story was simple: He hadn't been at the fight. But his alibi didn't bear up and, Ryan says, "Though he had been respectful and polite, this proved his credibility couldn't be trusted."
At some point, the principals asked Brandy Walmer, Joe Smith and Jonathan Duffy to do independent, face-to-face identifications of Loi. They did so, but two other Asian students Brandy had targeted earlier from the yearbook were allowed to return to class after they provided a plausible alibi for their whereabouts on Monday afternoon.
About 11 a.m., the school officials told Officer Dalton they were going to summarily suspend Loi, pending a district hearing on the assault allegations. Dalton's police report indicates that she brought Loi into her office at Thunderbird, where she read him his juvenile Miranda warnings.
Loi said he wanted to speak with an attorney. Dalton returned Loi to the school officials, who had decided to get the boy off campus as soon as possible.
"He had just been identified by three people as a person who caused physical injuries which had sent a kid to the hospital," Cecilia Ryan explains. "It had been reported to us that the Asians had been throwing gang signs and yelling slogans. I've got a kid in my office who everyone is looking for--the [non-Asian] victims, the victims' friends. I also had some very angry parents whose kids had had bodily harm done to them.
"First and foremost, I was very concerned about Loi's and the other Asian students' safety--I'd put my body between them and anyone who came on campus to get them. In my opinion, it was a reasonable option to take him home at that time, after we learned he didn't have anyone to pick him up."
Officer Dalton's police report paints a far different picture:
"When Ce Ryan advised me that she was concerned for her safety because of her belief that Loi is a gang member, I then agreed to transport both she and Loi in my marked police unit."
That certainly makes it sound as if Ryan's first concern was herself.
"I did not say to that officer that Loi was a gang member," she says, after reading Dalton's account for the first time. "I can't help what [Dalton] wrote, though it's so unfair and inaccurate. I had no previous information that Loi was in a gang, and didn't get any after the fight except from some non-Asian kids--and that wasn't specific. I had never taken a student home in my seven years as dean, and I didn't think it was the right thing for me to take him alone. The racial tensions on campus were worsening because people were sympathetic to Brandy. I thought I was delivering Loi to the bosom and safe haven of his family. I'm so sorry."
(Officer Dalton was reassigned last week, after she reportedly declined to discuss the alleged discrepancies in her police report with Thunderbird High officials.)
Ryan says Loi told her that his mother was at a doctor's office. She says she tried twice unsuccessfully to contact Miet Tran there. The school also was unsuccessful in tracking down a Vietnamese translator.
"I don't think Thunderbird understands the cultural implications of the situation," says Loi's seventh-grade teacher, Joan Bergdolt. "They needed a translator there--Loi's main ability to understand, especially in a stressful situation, is still in Vietnamese. This is a real sensitivity issue, whether Loi was in the right or wrong. Thunderbird was really remiss in this. They should have met with a parent at the school, rather than dumping him off at home with no explanation."
Ryan says her secretary confirmed through AT&T's translation service that Boi Nguyen was home, and only then did she and Officer Dalton take Loi to the residence. (Again, Ryan's recollections are dramatically different from Officer Dalton's, who wrote in her report that the secretary had contacted Boi Nguyen after the trio already was on the road--the implication being that the school didn't know if anyone was at the Nguyens' until they got there.)
Loi Nguyen rode in the back seat of Dalton's marked police car on his trip home. There, the principal and the officer introduced themselves to Boi Nguyen, who was in his motorized cart in his front yard.
Loi spoke to his father briefly in Vietnamese.
The authorities left.
Loi killed himself within minutes.
(Loi's suicide note is dated the day before, which raises the question about when he had decided to kill himself. More likely is that he erred on the date in the moments before he pulled the trigger.)
Word of Loi's suicide spread on the Thunderbird campus. Fearful, they say, of another brawl, school officials decided to send three of the key Anglo participants in the Monday fight home.
"They told me they couldn't guarantee Brandy's safety on campus," Susan Grant recalls. "I didn't know what in the world was going on over there."
Joe Smith says he, too, was sent home for the same reason.
"I didn't feel that my safety was a problem," he says candidly. "The whole school was hating those [Asian] kids then, not us."
After Loi's Death
Several events transpired in the aftermath of Loi Nguyen's death.
The Nguyens held a Buddhist ceremony at their home before the funeral services at a Tolleson cemetery.
Thunderbird's Jennifer Johnson and Cecilia Ryan attended the funeral services (Johnson also attended the previous evening's visitation), and provided a school bus for anyone who wanted to attend. The bus was filled with students, Ryan says, almost all of them Asian.
School officials set up what they called a "Care and Concern" room, where grieving students could speak with counselors. But some Asian students say they chose not to avail themselves of the counseling.
"Nothing against the school, but we felt like we were on our own by then," says a junior of Vietnamese descent. "I mean, we know that not everyone on campus was against Loi or us, not even close, but we were starting to wonder about our place here."
One reason is that someone had scribbled an anti-Asian slur on a bench outside the Care and Concern room--Thunderbird officials photographed and then obliterated the graffiti.
Brandy Walmer says she cried when she heard of Loi's suicide. "It was, like, this whole fight was over nothing, just nothing, and now, this kid who I didn't know was dead. For what?"
Jonathan Duffy says he didn't know what to think: "I had strong disliking for him, but I thought he was kind of stupid to kill himself. Just because you got kicked out of school you want to kill yourself? It's pointless."
Joe Smith says he felt nothing. "The truth is, I felt kind of cold about it. I didn't really have a reaction other than, 'Oh.'"
The trio never returned to Thunderbird after Loi Nguyen died, and transferred to another school in the district.
Gloria Ybarra, chief of the Attorney General's Office's civil rights unit, says her office is investigating the Nguyen case from two angles: to determine if anyone's civil rights were violated, and to mediate between some of the contentious parties--members of the Asian community, educators, police and others (but not the non-Asian students or their parents).
Jennifer Johnson says she's implemented change at Thunderbird in the wake of Loi's death. For starters, she says, "We are starting to do more outreach to parents, make a more active link with the school. We're going to start English language classes on campus for parents. We need a broader, deeper pool of translators--face-to-face is better. I'm not sure the outcome would have been different for Loi with a face-to-face translator, but I understand everyone's concerns about the way things played out.
The principal decides she wants to say one more thing: "Does anyone in this world really believe that, if we knew what was going to happen, what Loi was going to do, that we would have just walked away from him?"
Loi's sister, Cuom Tram, and others say they do believe that. First in English, then through an interpreter, Cuom tries to sort out her complex feelings about her brother's death.
"I am very mad about things with the school and the police and everyone," she says. "It is very bad that he had to do that [commit suicide], very bad. He's not fighter--he had to have reason to fight. But he didn't have to do what he did at my house."
Cuom then whispers something in her native language. "She said, 'This world is temporary,'" a translator says. "'The other one'--where her brother lives now--'is forever.'"
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: email@example.com