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Utah family hopes son's suicide buries bullying

Published December 17, 2012 9:37 am

Taylorsville • They say school officials didn't handle teen's situation properly, hope his legacy keeps other gay students from ending their lives.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Taylorsville • Before 14-year-old David Phan grabbed the 22-caliber pistol loaded with a single bullet and shot himself, he had been suspended from Bennion Junior High, perhaps for bringing a condom to school, the teen's parents said Saturday.

Inside their Taylorsville home, the family discussed for the first time the last moments of their youngest son's life and what they hope his legacy will be: helping gay students, especially those from minority cultures, handle bullying and better training for educators in dealing with gay youths.

The parents said district officials mishandled the situation from the beginning, starting with statements made by district spokesman Ben Horsley, who described the teen as having "significant personal challenges on multiple fronts."

John Mejia, legal director of ACLU of Utah, wrote a letter this week on behalf of the Phan family to Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates.

"David's parents have expressed deep concern that since the tragic incident, Granite School District officials, and particularly district spokesman Ben Horsley, have been extremely inappropriate in their public statements about David and his family," Mejia wrote in the Dec. 12 letter. "We urge you to immediately cease and desist from any further release to the public of any information about David and his family."

On Nov. 29, the day David committed suicide, his mother, Phuong Tran, said she was called at work by the principal, who informed her David had been suspended. When she arrived and asked for an explanation, Tran said school officials brushed her off, perhaps because of her heavy accent.

Here is what she understood: Another student had complained — had David made a sexual overture? — and when district officials searched David's backpack, they found a condom, Tran said.

"I asked [the principal] why he was suspending my son," Tran said. "He told me: 'We will discuss on Tuesday.'"

Nhuan Phan, the teen's father, added: "We have a right to know as parents. Nobody told us anything."

Afterward, Tran took her son home, asked him if everything was all right and if he wanted lunch. After being reassured by him, she returned to work.

They were the last words between the mother and son.

Later, she found a suicide note in his room that read: I had a great life but I must leave.

David walked back to school after his mother left, reaching the pedestrian bridge leading to the school's campus shortly after 3 p.m. and shot himself as his peers watched in horror.

The family said David's feelings of desperation could have been building. On the day before he died, during Bennion Junior's holiday fundraiser, David got a "singing" telegram from a boy, provoking laughter among the students, his parents' said. While David laughed along with them, his cousin said he was mortified.

David had come out to his older brother and other family members about a year ago, then about three months ago to his mother, and finally, to his father.

David's family described him as an avid outdoorsman who worked at local gun shows, practiced at local firing ranges and wanted to serve his country in the Army.

Phan remembers how he hugged his son when David told them he was gay and told him he loved him and wanted him to be safe.

After the boy's suicide, the parents said they felt they were trapped in a revolving door. Inside it, spinning with them, was the death of their youngest son, all the sadness, horror and questions. Outside, was the media storm of questions and school officials' offensive responses.

They were confused about a statement released by district spokesman Ben Horsley the day after the suicide: "Counselors have further remained in close regular contact with [the boy] because of other issues in his personal life. Despite specific personal inquiries, [the boy] never reported any further bullying concerns and, on the contrary, reported that things were going well." But David's parents said they knew nothing of counseling, beyond that given to students about future careers.

"Why didn't they tell the parents? Don't they have a right to know?" said Phan, tears running down his face.

On Saturday, in response to a question from The Salt Lake Tribune about whether the school was obligated to inform David's parents that he was seeing a counselor, Horsley clarified that it was a guidance counselor, not a mental health specialist.

"As an educational entity, our guidance counselors are not licensed for these types of [mental health] services," Horsley said. "When needed, we make notifications to the family."

He declined to elaborate on his earlier comment about David's "significant personal challenges on multiple fronts," saying the district was withholding that information "for the family's privacy."

Now, the Phans and their relatives are talking about the legacy of their son and brother, who they describe as well-loved with a strong family support system, but who could not deal with the bullying and the burden of being a gay Asian student in a school they believe did not support him.

They have enlisted the help of Steven Ha, a Salt Lake City Asian community activist, with ties to both the Vietnamese and gay communities. Ha said he will introduce the Phan family, who want to learn more, to local gay activists and assemble a group to address several issues, primarily suicide prevention for gay-ethnic youth.

"We're not interested in suing but working with credible sources. That's how we want David to be remembered," Ha said.

Those interested in helping can email him at steven.ha.usa@gmail.com.

Ha added that he has received letters from Asian youngsters saying they feel they're in the same situation as David and have considered suicide, too.

"We don't want another incident like this to happen," Ha said, as David's parents nodded in agreement.

rparker@sltrib.com

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