Was teen's suicide fueled by bullying? Family left with unclear answers
In his last minutes of life, 14-year-old David Phan grabbed a gun and shot himself in front of friends.
To some of his Bennion Junior High School peers, the teen's suicide on Nov. 29 in Taylorsville sounded like yet another young person succumbing to social rejection, if not outright bullying, according to some students and the Phan family.
The junior high student did not post on a Facebook page or leave a written note, according to police reports, so it's hard to know why he took his own life.
What is known is that Utah teens commit suicide more often than their peers in other parts of the nation. Two youths are treated for suicide attempts every day in Utah, according to the latest report on the subject by the Utah Department of Health.
Health officials said all suicide attempts should be taken seriously. In 2011, Utah high school students reported that: 26 percent felt sad/hopeless; 14 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide; 12 percent made a suicide plan; 7 percent attempted suicide one or more times; and 3 percent had suffered an injury because of a suicide attempt that had been treated by seeking medical help.
"[Suicide] is a very big problem in our state," said Jenny Johnson, a health department coordinator. "Utah has had a high suicide rate for over a decade."
Bullying and suicide an awareness of how closely those two can be linked in the lives of young people has never been stronger than of late. But the facts so far of David's life fit no simple narrative.
He attended Bennion Junior High, which is described as a typical public school for about 1,000 students in grades seven through nine. From the Vietnamese culture, David had an older brother as well as a two-parent home, along with an extended family.
His suicide left many in his school bewildered. The Phan family issued a statement saying David had been bullied in his last days, but school officials said there were no recent reports of bullying from David or anyone else.
The Unified Police Department is investigating the suicide.
"We're still investigating but [have] no evidence to pursue criminal charges," Lt. Justin Hoyal said Friday. There are no particular individuals or suicide notes pointing to the reasons behind David's actions
Bennion Junior principal Rod Horton said Friday that students had collected donations for Phan's family, who are starting an anti-bullying foundation, as part of the school's regular holiday charity events.
Beyond that, Horton referred questions to Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley, who said officials will meet with the family soon.
So far, the Phan family has asked for privacy while grieving for their son, who was buried Tuesday during a private ceremony. Relatives have not spoken about David's state of mind and whether he was dealing with routine teen trials or other issues.
Horsley said previously that David had been seeing a school counselor, but no educators or students have come forward to report any bullying involving David.
Several Bennion Junior students have started a Twitter profile, where about a dozen students have posted under the hashtag of #DavidsArmy. A description of the group, @ DavidsArmy, states, "This is the official Davids (sic) Army page. Were (sic) here to stop bullying and protect those who are bullied."
Some students have used the page as an outlet for the grief following David's death.
"Everyone please help people know bullying isn't the answer. And suicide shouldn't have to be either. RIP David Phan," wrote Bennion Junior High student Megan Malcolm.
Added student Connor Johnson, "Together we can make #Davidsarmy known, and prevent losses like ours from happening again."
School officials acknowledge David reported being bullied two years ago, while emphasizing there weren't any recent reports. Even so, most people do not commit suicide because of one event or a floundering relationship, although both can surely contribute, some experts say.
Two main risk factors for suicide are depression and a prior suicide attempt. Although not going into details, Horsley said last week that David faced "significant personal challenges on multiple fronts."
Anita Nielsen, a psychologist at Riverton High School, has dealt with teen suicide. When the school lost three students in one year to suicide, the school counselors and Nielsen started the Hope Squad, a suicide prevention program. She said the squad is a collection of students who are named as being available for those needing to talk.
Nielsen also teaches about suicide prevention at the Jordan Education Center, where she teaches parenting classes, anger and stress management, and other subjects.
"They're looking out for kids who are loners and those types of things," said Nielsen, who was named 2012 Utah State Psychologist of the Year. "I think a lot of bullying starts in elementary and then in junior high it can get really bad and in high school it eases off. It's important to get guns and medications out of the house. Teens are impulsive."
Why, exactly, did the 14-year-old decide to end his life? What was at the bottom of his sense of despair? What services might have reached him?
In death, so far, the teen left no clear answers.
Twitter: @rayutah How does state code define bullying?
"Bullying" means intentionally or knowingly committing an act that:
1. (a) endangers the physical health or safety of a school employee or student;
(b) involves any brutality of a physical nature such as whipping, beating, branding, calisthenics, bruising, electric shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body or exposure to the elements;
(c) involves consumption of any food, liquor, drug or other substance;
(d) involves other physical activity that endangers the physical health and safety of a school employee or student; or
(e) involves physically obstructing a school employee's or student's freedom to move; and
2. is done for the purpose of placing a school employee or student in fear of:
(a) physical harm to the school employee or student; or
(b) harm to property of the school employee or student.