Family of suicide victim angry, confused after meeting with school district

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 5:05 p.m. MST

TAYLORSVILLE — The parents of a 14-year-old boy who took his own life in the presence of other students met with Granite School District officials last week, but left the meeting angry and confused, according to a family representative.

Prior to the meeting with the district, the family of David Phan had said it was not their intention to pursue litigation against the district. But Steven Ha, a community activist assisting David Phan's parents Nhuan Phan and Phuong Tran, said now the family was considering legal representation and would likely not speak to the media until speaking with a lawyer.

On Nov. 29, David Phan shot himself on a pedestrian overpass near Bennion Junior High. Reports from friends and family members suggest he was the victim of frequent bullying. But school officials, who had been working regularly with the student through counseling services, said he hadn't reported any instances of bullying in roughly two years.

The family claims that school officials kept them in the dark about their son's meetings with school counselors, information that requires disclosure to a parent or guardian. They have also taken issue with the district's handling of events leading up to and following their son's death.

The case illustrates the sometimes delicate role that school counselors play in the mental and emotional health of students. They are trained to recognize students going through emotional stress, and to provide basic mental health services, but are limited by what students are willing to disclose as well as having their time focused on providing academic counseling to an entire student body.

"It is tricky. It is very, very complicated," Dawn Stevenson, former coordinator of school counselors for the state office of education, said. "But as long as we're doing our best, not ignoring problems, not refusing to help, then we're doing what can be done."

In their first public statement after their son's death the family said that David Phan was a loving and outstanding son who shielded his parents from the horror and negative experiences he was experiencing at school. They said they wanted to address what they said were conflicting statements made by the Granite School District.

"Let us not deny the numerous accounts that David was the victim of serious bullying at school," Thanh-Tung Than-Trong, a family spokesperson, said during a Dec. 2 press conference. "David exuded love when his bullies showed nothing but ignorance and fear. He was raised with compassion and understanding with the goal of contributing to society."

On Monday, the ACLU of Utah sent a letter to Granite District Superintendent Martin Bates on behalf of David Phan's parents, alleging that the district had violated federal and state privacy laws and had kept the family in the dark concerning David's emotional issues. The ACLU also requested that the district cease and desist releasing information about David Phan to the public.

District spokesman Ben Horsley declined to comment on the allegations raised in the ACLU's letter, but said the district was appreciative of the chance to speak with the Phan family on Tuesday.

"We're just not going to be commenting further on this," Horsley said.

David Phan's death came just weeks before local and national attention was turned toward the subjects of mental health, school safety and access to firearms in the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school. While many are calling for stricter restrictions on gun ownership, others are pointing to a greater need to evaluate and provide care for mental health.

Stevenson described school counselors as "general practitioners of mental health." She said a counselor's primary focus is academic planning, but tied into every discussion a counselor has with a student are the emotional and social issues that impede a student's academic progress.

Counselors are trained to recognize students who are having difficulties, she said, and if those difficulties are severe they are required to involve the parents in finding help for the child.

"As soon as you know that a student is a risk to himself or others you are legally obligated to inform the administration," she said.

But she said there is a requirement for disclosure even if students don't exhibit the potential for inflicting harm on themselves or others. If a student speaks with a counselor about an emotional crises of any kind, parental permission is required before a follow-up counseling session can be scheduled.

"A follow-up visit requires that you have permission to continue working with that student," Stevenson said. "If it’s concerning enough that you want to see that student again you need to involve the parent."

Following the shooting, district spokesman Ben Horsley said that school counselors had been meeting regularly with David Phan to discuss issues in his personal life. But the letter from the ACLU claims the family had no knowledge of the school's concerns for his emotional health prior to his death.

Horsley declined to comment on the degree to which the Phan family was made aware of David Phan's meetings with counselors.

The family has stated that their intent is not to point fingers or cast blame, but rather that they hope their son's death will motivate students to report bullying and school officials to take measures to prevent bullying in the future.

"They love that David taught us should leave a legacy where we unite in a common goal to eliminate bullying," Than-Trong said.

Stevenson said that as far as she is aware, the state office of education is not investigating whether Bennion Junior High and Granite School District violated counseling policy. She said she admires the Phan family for trying to promote positive change in the face of tragedy.

"We always want to know what could have been done and really I commend the family for their efforts to try and help future children," she said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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