Utah School District’s Response to 14-Year-Old Gay Teen’s Tragic Suicide Is Deplorable

david-and-father

David Phan and his father, photo by Scott Sommerdrorf for The Salt Lake Tribune

On Thursday, November 29th, the principal of Phuong Tan‘s son’s school called her at work to tell her that her son, 14-year-old David Phan, had been suspended and needed to be picked up. When she asked why he’d been suspended, she was brushed off — “perhaps because of her heavy accent,” Tran told The Salt Lake Tribune. It’s reported that “what she understood” was that “another student had complained and when district officials searched David’s backpack, they found a condom.” Furthermore, “[the principal] told me: we will discuss on Tuesday.”

But when Tuesday came around, it was far too late. On Thursday, Phuong Tan took David home, made him lunch, and, at David’s insistence, returned to work, at which point David, “an avid outdoorsman who worked at local gun shows, practiced at local firing ranges and wanted to serve his country in the Army,” then took a 22-caliber pistol with him to a pedestrian bridge near Bennion Junior High’s campus and killed himself in front of his stunned peers. He’d left a note behind in his room reading: “I had a great life but I must leave.”

david's parents

Phuong Tan and Nhuan Phan, photo by Scott Sommerdorf for The Salt Lake Tribune

It’s impossible to know what specifically triggered David, but David’s classmates attest that David was frequently bullied in school, and Queerty reports that on November 28th, a boy had sent David a singing telegram from another boy, “and though he laughed along with his classmates, his cousin revealed that he was indeed mortified.”

David Phan’s family, however, has always been accepting of his sexual orientation. Queerty reports that “David came out to his older brother and other family members a year ago. Then about three months ago, he came out to his mother and finally his father, Nhuan Phan, who hugged him, told him he loved him and wanted him to be safe.” As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, David’s family said David was “well-loved with a strong family support system, but could not deal with the bullying and the burden of being a gay Asian student in a school they believe did not support him.”

The lack of support David received from the school during his short life was, unfathomably, amped up in the wake of his death.

Ben Horsely, the Granite School District Spokesperson, is called out by name in a letter delivered to the Superintendent by the ACLU essentially asking Horsely to stop talking about David Phen. On November 30th, Horsely told local media that David had been receiving counseling at school and had spoken to counselors “about other issues in his personal life” but had “purportedly failed to report the bullying to counselors and denied being bullied to counselors in response to their direct questions.” (Although any good counselor knows that bullied kids are often reluctant to report the bullying in fear of attracting additional bullying!) Horsely insisted David was having “significant personal challenges on multiple fronts” and that he had “mental health” issues.

This is problematic on two levels: first, the content of his counseling sessions is, legally, confidential information that should not be released to anybody, let alone the press. Secondly, this was how David’s parents learned their son had been in counseling at all.

David’s father, Nhuan Phan, said: “We have a right to know as parents. Nobody told us anything.” Horsley “clarified” that David was seeing a “guidance counselor, not a mental health specialist” and that the school was apparently only obligated to notify the family “when needed” (which the ACLU disputes).

Horsley even went so far as to tell the media “that David had been searched for weapons on November 29″ which the ACLU notes was clearly an attempt to “imply the school had some reason to suspect that David might have a weapon.” From the ACLU’s letter:

These improper statements are particularly disconcerting because none of the District’s alleged concerns about David’s mental and emotional health had ever been communicated to David’s parents before this tragic event occurred. By leaking purported information about David to the media, the District appears to be attempting to smear David and his family in order to avoid answering questions about whether the District failed in its obligations to protect David from the bullying he reportedly experienced for several years at the hands of other students…

Before setting out the legal problems with these public statements by the District, it must be pointed out that their apparent motivation is extremely problematic on a human level. Specifically, the District’s public statements in the immediate wake of this tragedy seem to be motivated by a desire to shield itself from criticism or liability for failing to protect David from bullying. Even worse, District officials selectively released confidential and protected information about David in a manner making it difficult not to conclude that it was trying to cast suspicion on David and his character…. now is certainly not the time for the District to start public maneuvering and posturing at the expense of a family facing such a devastating loss. No amount of media spin will change the underlying facts.

In the rest of the letter, the ACLU lays out the legal violations made by the school district and implores them to stop talking about David Phan. Horsley is a staunch Republican, passionate Mormon (see: Horsley’s twitter feed) and graduate of the George W. Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University (a University which prohibits anybody from “promoting homosexual relations as morally acceptable.”) Horsley has served on Republican Party commissions and ran (unsuccessfully) for office in the Utah House of Representatives in 2010, during which he declared that Arizona was the only state handling immigration laws properly and effectively. Did Horsley’s background impact his perspective on anti-gay bullying or was he solely motivated by saving face? (Today, Horsley has been kept busy by another situation in his district involving an 11-year-old bringing a gun to school for “protection” from another “Connecticut style incident.”)

We also have a lack of anti-bullying legislation throughout Utah: according to sexetc, public schools in Utah do not have a Safe Schools Law, anti-bullying laws to protect students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, or a statewide anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation or gender identity. As David’s parents suggested, it’s difficult to imagine that David could’ve ever felt fully accepted in a prominently Mormon and prominently white county with no anti-discrimination protections for gay students. Then Horsley exacerbated the situation after David’s death by showing no respect for the humanity of David’s grieving parents.

But David was a boy, a teenage boy with his entire life ahead of him, a life tragically cut short. Friends who spoke to the press at a candlelight vigil held in David’s honor on November 29th describe David as “a kind, friendly soul.” Fellow ninth-grader Hunter Evensen said David was “one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever known” but that kids picked on him and called him names. Kaleb King, another ninth-grader, said “I hated when people [bullied him]. I felt so bad for him.”

young david phen

young david phan

Now David’s family is working with Steven Ha, an activist who works with both the Vietnamese and gay communities, to assemble a group of local gay activists to address suicide prevention for gay youth. Ha told The Salt Lake Tribune: “We’re not interested in suing but working with credible sources. That’s how we want David to be remembered.” Citing letters he’s gotten from other Asian teenagers who have considered suicide, Ha notes: “We don’t want another incident like this to happen.” (Those interested in helping can email him at [email protected].)

On the day of David’s funeral, his family released the following statement about their son’s brief, brilliant and promising time on this earth:

“David was an adored son, beloved by his close knit parents, older brother, and large extended family. David’s home life was full of support and unconditional love. His parents are devastated to have lost their young son who rarely left their side. Many of his peers and members of the community have confirmed that David was an amazing student and extraordinary friend.

David shielded his parents from the horror he was facing and his negative experiences at Bennion Jr. High. The last few days have been an absolute living nightmare to learn that he was bullied in school where he was supposed to be in a safe learning environment. It is time for us to turn the hate David endured by bullies into a learning experience to strengthen a divided community. Let us not deny the numerous accounts that David was a victim of serious bullying at school. Allow his family and friends the ability to heal by us all taking accountability and to move towards conversations and practices that will enable us to prevent other children from enduring this unbearable pain.”

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Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

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26 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    just anotehr murder by induced suicide courtesy of the religiou right in this country, who btw are often the paranoids who support assualt weapons etc in the hands of anyone and no gun checks of buyers at gun shows.

    Time to 1. Make whoever made the guna available to someone who kills another or themselves legally liablbe as accessories before the fact.

    And the same thing re hate speech against gay people who commit suicide. Religious freedom is a curse that leads to, per my psycholgist neighbor, about 3000 known gay kids committing suicide every year. (out of about8000-9000 kids commititng suicide.

    BTW the NRA is a creature of the merchants of death – the gun industry.

    Germany and Israel learned their lessons well. Hate speech gets you a fine or a trip to the pokey.

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      I think you are straying into dangerous territory when you start assigning so much random blame in situations like this.

      Number 1, kids who bully often don’t do it for religious reasons. They do it because of peer pressure and because adolescence is a time where conformity is good and people who are different are targets.
      Number 2, religious freedom is not a curse. I understand the need to blame in situations like this, but it’s important not to paint every religious person with an extremist brush. You are letting the actions/beliefs of one sect of Christianity inform all your opinions of religious people.
      Number 3, if we start criminalizing speech, where does that slippery slope lead? One day you may be the one saying something that the government doesn’t agree with.

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        Emma, while I agree there are a lot of different reasons for bullying behavior, one of them is definitely hearing hate opinions from parents and community and transferring that onto vulnerable kids. So if kids are hearing negative opinions about gay people at home (especially if it involves a form of ridicule) those kids are much more likely to bully. Nor is bullying limited to middle and high school… there are lots of adults who continue this behavior into work environments and, yes, certain religion-based value judgments can have a lot to do with that.

        Personally, I think it’s almost impossible for schools to really have a “100% zero tolerance for bullying policy” and honestly, I think a lot of bullying happens when schools talk the talk but don’t really support true diversity in their school communities. And teens and guns just don’t mix. If guns are going to be legal (I wish they weren’t) they should be regulated by age just like any other highly dangerous activity.

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          I agree with you, of course. I just am not a fan of extremism in any form- even liberal extremism. And I don’t think the bullying problem, teen suicide, or even mass murders like what happened on Friday are going to be fixed/stopped by focusing on just one issue and blaming everything on that.

          Yes, this child was being bullied, and the school should have done more to prevent that. But (unethical actions of the spokesperson aside) it sounds like he was getting some help from the school by seeing the guidance counselor. (School counselors are not required to inform parents that their child is seeing them, according to the School Counseling Assoc. code of ethics. It is a judgement call by the counselor) He also had a fairly supportive home life. What drives a child to this extreme action? There must be more than one factor at play. I don’t claim to know, as I don’t know the situation personally.
          But to blame it solely on religious-based bullying is far too black and white for me.

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        You’re right that freedom of religion isn’t to blame for the suicides of many queer youths. But it’s naive to say that the christian right doesn’t play a huge role in the deaths of these children. If you read the article, you’ll see how the political and religious beliefs of the superintendent were a huge part of what happened. Pressure from Conservatives has resulted in silence around the bullying and discrimination of queer youth. To pretend this is a random tragedy for which no one is to blame is ridiculous and in fact, insulting to the gay asian child who is now dead and his family. Perhaps not all those children bullied him because they are christian (though many of them were christian), but the atmosphere of hate and bigotry perpetuated by the evangelical right’s homophobic rhetoric and conservative school faculty members’ silence and bigotry creates these intolerable situations for queer youth and allows this bullying to continue unpunished and unaddressed.

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          I agree with you on all your points. That’s just totally not what the original poster whom I was replying to was saying. They were lumping all religious people into the right-wing conservatism of the LDS, which is like saying all people who practice Islam are terrorists. Also: Mormons aren’t considered Christians by a lot of Christian authorities.

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    This is such a terrible story, but i think that there is a real big issue with how Mental Health Issues as a result of bullying are dealt with across the world whether this is bullying in related to sexual orientation or not… the bullying issue is not a new one but the developments in social networking and the internet makes bullying easier and the affects of this type of bullying can be a lot worse as a result. kids do and say things sitting behind a computer that they wouldn’t necessarily do in a face to face situation.

    Kids can be cruel but if this issue is going to be tackled there needs to be help for the children doing the bullying as it is commonly the case that bullying occurs as a result of someones own insecurities.

    Here in Ireland the issue of mental health in young people isn’t really talked about bullying is a big issue in schools and these to things combined has resulted in a horrifying number of suicides across the country amoung young people between 13-16… http://www.independent.ie/national-news/society-failed-two-sisters-mourners-told-3327205.html
    Here is a recent example..

    No matter the reason of the bullying or the subject of the bullying it is a horrible thing and kids don’t necessarily understand the affects it is having until it is to late. I think that education is the key to stopping bullying and talking is an important part of dealing with mental health issues.

    In Ireland (and across the world) I hope this recent peak of suicides and publicity they received will in some crazy way help reduce bullying as kids see the results of nasty bullying I hope these young lives have not been lost in vain… Young people need more support before it is to late, more opportunity to speak about problems they are having.. they need to no suicide is not the answer. we only have one life, growing up is hard but it does get better.

    I find it shocking when people of such a young age die as a result of suicide when i was that age i probably wouldn’t have heard or understood what it was.

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      :( I’m not stunned tbh. He was gay AND a person of color. I know now that the mainstream media doesn’t care about us. A straight, white attractive teen girl would’ve been on Nancy Grace & Dateline the minute it happened. Funds & tributes would’ve been set up all across the country.

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    As a graduate of Granite School District and a previously frequent visitor to that junior high, I am not surprised. I am horrified, broken hearted, but not surprised. No one in a high position of leadership gives a damn about lgbt students. There are a few teachers, but it’s hard to help on a macro level when they get squashed by administrators (especially in junior highs. The situation is slightly better in high school, but only just.)

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    I grew up in Utah and attended all schools in Granite School District. Man is the administration for that district just a shit show. I hate to say it, but this wasn’t the slightest bit shocking to me. Utah’s go problems.

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    I’m still shocked that there are states where it’s “okay,” or at the last not expressly forbidden, to bully a child in school based on their sexual orientation or gender presentation. It’s almost like they’re kind of hoping that these kids will be bullied and that it will be effective in “straightening” them out. Frankly, it sickens me.

    Also, I think it’s a big hole in the way we approach these issues – especially in the way that the It Gets Better program addresses them – that we’re ignoring the mental health factor of the equation a majority of the time. Yes, these kids are gay and, quite unfortunately, bullied, but perhaps there is more driving them to the point where they want to take their own lives. At David’s age, I too seriously considered suicide; I was in constant therapy and on a rotation of different anti-depressants and at that age, my orientation was not really a consideration, nor was I expressing it in any way publicly (so I doubt that any bullying I experienced was because of that, nor was it weighing on my mind a considerable amount). By telling kids It Gets Better for gay people as grown-ups, we’re ignoring the fact that sometimes it does not get better for mentally ill people, without the proper help, and I think that’s a huge oversight.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    the final comment the family left is the most same and livin thin I’ve ever read from someone in their shoes. we should all learn to be more like them and lose the hatred in our hearts. even if it is warranted.

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