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Family remembers teen as 'happy soul' who was victim of bullying

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 1:48 p.m. MDT

Students walk to a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Students walk to a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

TAYLORSVILLE — David Q. Phan was a "bright and smiling boy and loved to talk to everyone," his family recalled Friday.

But they also knew that the 14-year-old boy was a victim of bullying.

"David had been bullied for the past few years. He would come home crying sometimes. Bullies would walk home with him, taunting him and throwing things at him. After ignoring them didn't work, he started fighting back and got into trouble at school because of this," Phan's cousin, Vy Lake, said.

But David's family does not want to point a finger at anyone for the suicide of their loved one, nor speculate that his tragic and fatal actions were the direct result of bullying.

Students mourn at a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Students mourn at a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"We are not trying to place a blame on anyone. We just wish everyone would be more aware to bullying in the schools, and a little friendlier to their peers," said Lake, who also spoke on behalf of David's parents.

On Thursday, David shot himself on the overpass leading to his school, Bennion Junior High, 6055 S. 2700 West, about 3 p.m. The shooting was witnessed by other students.

Many people, particularly David's classmates and friends, have speculated out loud and on social media pages such as Facebook that he took his own life because he was the victim of bullying.

Lake said David's family went to the school about two years ago to discuss bullying concerns with the principal.

"Everybody in the family was aware (of the bullying). My sisters went to school with him and used to try and look out for him, but then they graduated to high school. I spoke to his principal on one occasion about it. Later it became harder to gauge how much bullying was still going on because he wasn't telling his family," she said.

Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

When asked why David was bullied, Lake said she didn't fully know.

"David was just a unique boy with a really outgoing personality. He spoke his mind a lot."

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said the district was aware of the reports of bullying two years ago. But since then, there had been no additional reports. If there was bullying that was occurring, Horsley said David didn't tell school officials about it.

"What we have yet to receive from any student is any identification of an alleged perpetrator or details with specific incidents to bullying," he said.

As of Friday afternoon — even after the much publicized shooting and reports of bullying — Horsley said no one had stepped forward to report a specific incident involving David.

Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

School officials also noted that David was facing other personal issues and that they have not come to any conclusions about why he took the course of action he did.

"What is clear at this point in time is that David was facing significant personal challenges on multiple fronts. Without detailing private information that is available to us, at this point in time it would not be appropriate to make any formal conclusions," Horsley wrote in a prepared statement.

"Consequently, school administration and counselors have stayed in close contact with him since that time. Counselors have further remained in close regular contact with David because of other issues in his personal life. Despite specific personal inquiries, David never reported any further bullying concerns and on the contrary, reported that things were going well."

David had approached a counselor about 18 months ago because of personal concerns, Horsley said. He declined to elaborate, but noted that the meeting with the counselor was separate from the bullying issue. However, the counselor did continue to ask David if he had any bullying concerns at that time.

Photo on the memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Photo on the memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The counselor continued to check in with David, but the check-ups were about his overall well-being, Horsley said. David's family had also been notified and were working along with the counselor to help David.

David had been dismissed from school early Thursday — a couple of hours prior to the shooting — and went home with his mother. Before going home, there was a meeting between David, the principal and his mother. The school district declined to discuss the nature of that meeting.

David was also searched for weapons before he left, Horsley said without elaborating as to why the boy was searched. Other parents who have students at Bennion have told the Deseret News that being searched for weapons is not common practice for someone being checked out of school early.

Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Memorial on the overpass where student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

The handgun David used came from his home, Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal confirmed. The gun had been locked up in a safe at the home. Hoyal said David knew where the weapon was and was somehow able to access it.

As David walked across the skybridge, he ran into a group of seven students he knew, Hoyal said. There was a "very short" conversation between David and the group before David pulled out a gun and shot himself before anyone had time to react. Hoyal declined to discuss what was said between David and the students.

David's family also declined Friday to discuss what happened Thursday leading up to the incident. Instead, they wanted to remember a boy who "loved the typical boy stuff — hiking, shooting air guns, video games and soldiers," Lake said.

David's family is of Vietnamese heritage. He was born in Utah.

A Bennion Junior High student cries during a moment of silence for a Bennion student who committed suicide. The candlelight vigil at the school in his memory drew hundreds of students, families and friends, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) A Bennion Junior High student cries during a moment of silence for a Bennion student who committed suicide. The candlelight vigil at the school in his memory drew hundreds of students, families and friends, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

"He was always more mature than the average kid and was very polite. He is the youngest cousin on both sides of the family. Undoubtedly, he was everyone's favorite cousin, grandchild and nephew," Lake said. "David was a positive and happy soul in every aspect. He truly just wanted to be everybody's friend."

The family said Friday that David was now with another family member who passed away.

"My grandfather passed away last year and David was so distraught. I remember being at the funeral with him and he turned to me and just said, 'I miss him so much,' and broke down. We just held each other and cried. We all knew David was my grandfather's favorite. I believe he is taking care of my grandfather in heaven right now," Lake said.

A funeral will be held Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kearns. The family said friends and classmates of David are invited to attend.

Students mourn at a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Students mourn at a memorial on the overpass where, on Thursday, Bennion Junior High School student David Q. Phan, 14, shot and killed himself, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, in Taylorsville. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

At Bennion Junior High on Friday, many students wore blue — David's favorite color — in remembrance of their classmate. Crisis counselors were at both the junior high school and nearby Calvin Smith Elementary School. A grief counselor was assigned specifically to follow David's class schedule on Friday, Horsley said. Ongoing counseling services were also offered in the school library and will be available as long as needed, he said.

The students who witnessed the shooting were allowed after school to have their own moment of silence at the site where David shot himself. Other students, teachers and the media stayed a short distance away as the group visited the makeshift memorial at the spot where the tragedy occurred.

Maxine Christensen, the crossing guard at that overpass, heard the gunshot Thursday.

A Bennion Junior High student cries during a moment of silence for a Bennion student who committed suicide. The candlelight vigil at the school in his memory drew hundreds of students, families and friends, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) A Bennion Junior High student cries during a moment of silence for a Bennion student who committed suicide. The candlelight vigil at the school in his memory drew hundreds of students, families and friends, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

"He was a nice kid. He was just a very nice, polite boy," she said. "Very nice, very polite young man. Just a great kid to deal with."

But Christensen said there were also times David would come running up to the crosswalk and ask to cross quickly because he said he was being bullied, she said.

Thursday night, a candlelight vigil was held on the overpass.

"He was nice to everyone, even if sometimes people weren't nice to him," said Bennion ninth-grader Brandon Newby.

Ninth-graders Makayla Schmidt and Ponia Clark said they came to the vigil not only in remembrance of the boy they had come to know in their classes, but also to support a friend who witnessed the tragedy. The gathering at the school gave students a chance to mourn together, Ponia said.

A mourner rests a candle on the overpass adjacent to Bennion Junior High School at a candlelight vigil in memory of a Bennion student who committed suicide Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News) A mourner rests a candle on the overpass adjacent to Bennion Junior High School at a candlelight vigil in memory of a Bennion student who committed suicide Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Ben Brewer, Deseret News)

"I knew (him) really well, and I think other people needed comfort as well as me,” she said, her voice trembling as she looked around at the group. “I needed to find a place where I could cry.”

Makayla said bullying is sometimes hard to see, especially when it is done through cruel words. “I heard it, people (talking about him),” she said. “I don't think people realize how much words can hurt.”

School officials have encouraged students to report any incidents of bullying through a district safety hotline at 801-481-7199. The district also offers an anonymous text service for bullying to be reported at 801-664-2929.

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