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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Case Narrative

Anxiously pushing aside the lace curtain, Mai Nguyen looked down from her third floor window, hoping to see June's familiar face. She had lived here in Seattle, Washington with her family since arriving a little over eight months ago and she usually took great delight in watching the busy street. She liked to see what the women wore on their way to work, and how the kids chased together to the end of the block. The noise and liveliness helped to ease her mind of the terrible memories that often crowded in and the misery she had endured for years before she emigrated from a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia with her kids.

But today Mai's worry for Khoi, her 13-year-old son, loomed too large for her to take any pleasure in the antics below. Looking back over her shoulder, Mai could see Khoi sitting on his bed, his knees pulled to his chin rocking slightly to the music that escaped from the headphones gripping his ears.

For the most part, Khoi had adapted to his new life relatively easily and was popular with his peers because of his athletic ability. He was always the first to be picked for a soccer game and had proudly placed his school trophy in a prominent place in the apartment's tiny living room. Mai found great joy in Khoi's successes and hoped that his younger siblings would follow his lead.

But last week, Khoi had arrived home late, unhappy and dejected. “I've been suspended,” he told Mai despondently, and handed her a note that she could not read. Mai cajoled and pushed and finally got through his uncharacteristically defiant stance to find out what happened. “I didn't know,” he told her, his voice taut with hurt and frustration. “I didn't know you have to stand away from a fight. It was my friend Tran Le and another boy who were fighting and I wanted to see what was going on. Then they took me away and gave me this letter. It says I have to stay home 5 days and then I can go back. But I'm never going back, never!”

Khoi had stamped off away from Mai to another room, but the apartment was so small that she couldn't help but hear his angry sobs.

Mai was stunned at her son's outburst, and had remained rooted in place for a great while as her mood slowly spiraled downward. Her lack of proficiency in English was one reason she did not immediately call the school administrators to find out why her son was so upset. But Mai also had an ingrained fear of authority figures, a cultural aversion she shared with many Vietnamese due to their experiences during the war.

For the next few days she felt hopeless and confused. Then finally, after watching her son mope about the house with no break in his gloomy demeanor, she had called her friend June to come over and talk.

June Truong and Sor Piseth, Community Advocates
June Truong worked as a housing consultant for TPACS (the Pan Asian Community Services), a small community based organization that served the diverse Asian populations in central Seattle, and she was always glad to help.

When she got the call from Mai Nguyen she had immediately contacted a social worker down the hall, Sor Piseth, and they had scheduled a time when they could both visit Mai. As a friend, June wanted to comfort Mai and hopefully try and talk to Khoi about what had really happened, but she wanted Sor along for another reason.

TPACS had recently decided to play a role in the local schools and Sor had taken the lead in meeting with a number of principals to see how the organization could act as a mediating influence when students and their families needed help. Khoi Nguyen's suspension was the kind of situation where June felt she and Sor had some deep insight and she hoped TPACS could be brought in to benefit both the school and the family.

She was sure the issues were more complicated than what Mai had told her over the phone. Some elements of the story seemed to be missing and it was difficult to determine why Khoi did not want to go back. As they drove towards Mai's small apartment, June told Sor she had met Mai at a temple picnic and had been taken with her graceful composure in spite of her difficult life.

Mai had left her home country with her husband and Khoi following the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Vietnam in 1973, but they had gotten stuck in a refugee camp in Malaysia, waiting for their chance to immigrate to France or the U.S. Mai gave birth to two children in the camp before her husband died, and had come to the U.S. only because of the influence of a distant relative. However, that relationship had grown strained because of Mai's abject poverty. Her health was not good and she had only been able to work sporadically as she had to care for her children. She had secured the family's apartment with the help of TPACS, and relied greatly on the charity of the local temple and its affiliated organizations.

In spite of their different circumstances, June felt a bond with Mai and often sat with her at temple events. She knew that Khoi was Mai's shining star, and she was worried how his troubles were affecting her ability to take care of her other children. June told Sor she had last seen Mai a couple of weeks ago, but hadn't had a chance to talk with her since. As they drove along, the two chatted on about their hopes for TPACS influence on school policies, then both fell silent as they reflected on their own experiences.

June's family had been fairly lucky as they were some of the first Vietnamese to leave the country as political refugees. Still, things were difficult, and both parents had to work at jobs that were far below their capabilities because of their inability to speak English. June and her two brothers were the only Vietnamese children in their elementary school and sometimes the only Asians. They were teased for their funny lunches, their looks, and the language of seemingly strange sounds that they still spoke among themselves. Perhaps because of her experiences, June had always wanted to help people, and she had begun working with a local housing agency as an intern in college. When she graduated, she had taken the job with TPACS.

Sor had arrived as a teenager in the U.S. in the mid-eighties, after a frightening escape from first Cambodia and then Vietnam. Many in his large family had been killed during the Khmer Rouge regime and only his immediate family had survived. In his first couple of months at the new high school, Sor was often in trouble - it almost seemed as if he looked for any opportunity to get in a fight and prove his strength and courage.

But a gift for math and a talented teacher helped him set his sights on academic goals. He learned English with grim determination, and then went on to college, choosing a major that would allow him to help his community.

Using their own experiences in the schools as a guide, June and Sor had begun the discussion at TPACS about forming partnerships with local schools. TPACs had expertise with housing, medical issues, and social problems, but the organization had never dealt with the many issues that were involved with educating the growing number of youth in the Asian communities. Sor's initial discussions with principals had been encouraging and he and June had begun to formulate a list of areas in which they thought TPACS could be of help.

Both June and Sor were not only bilingual, they were bicultural. They felt they had a better understanding than many educators of how young people of Asian background might respond to some of the expectations they were presented with in this often strange U.S. environment. Hoping to help with Khoi Nguyen, Sor had already called to make an appointment with the principal at the school.

Mike Horsmith, Principal
Mike Horsmith had been the principal at Aurora Middle School for four years and during that time had seen a great number of changes in the student population. The community surrounding the school was now predominantly Hispanic—the many families of third generation Mexican-Americans had been joined by recent immigrants from Central America. Yet the neighborhood was also home to a number of Vietnamese and Cambodian families, and a fresh wave of immigration had brought newcomers from Laos, Thailand, and the Phillipines. Many of the parents had low-paying jobs in nearby industry or as craftspeople and day laborers. The education level and economic stability of the older residents were often higher, but length of residency in the U.S. did not always mean better opportunities and more resources.

Mike did the best he could to cope with the challenges that diversity created, and he had a good track record of making needed changes. He liked to run a “tight ship” and had inspired his teachers to do the same by asking them to implement strong disciplinary rules in their classrooms that dealt quickly with any problems that cropped up.

At the same time, he was very interested in helping the local communities and made many gestures to celebrate diversity. In the fall, Mike had organized in-class discussion for Asian History Week, and the school's Spring Festival of Foods had featured representative dishes from many countries.

Last week Mike had got a call from Sor Piseth, and he had been intrigued with meeting him and finding out more about his idea of a partnership between TPACS and the school. But when Sor called him back this morning and asked for a meeting in regards to the Nguyen suspension, Mike was less than enthusiastic. He wanted to approach the partnership issue thoughtfully and thoroughly, and put in place workable mechanisms and a viable infrastructure. He did not want to involve TPACS in volatile issues on an ad hoc basis.

Mike thought that the school had performed acceptably with regards to Khoi Nguyen. The school had circulated a handbook of rules early in the school year and had even printed the book in Spanish and a number of Southeast Asian languages.

The handbook included among the rules a protocol for student behavior during a fight, and all students had been instructed to stand 20 feet away. As far as Mike knew, Khoi Nyugen had been informed of the rule and had violated it. The result, as the book informed the students, was suspension. There had, in fact, been three students who had been sent home with letters that day, and the other two had already returned to school. Khoi Nguyen had been expected to come back to Aurora Middle School yesterday, and if there was an additional problem, Mike felt that should be dealt with in the family and community.

His strong policies had minimized discipline problems at Aurora Middle School, and he wasn't about to change now. He would be happy to meet with Mai Nguyen, but he didn't want TPACS to get involved with this issue.

A Meeting at Mai's Home
Mai ushered her guests into her home, apologizing for its bleakness and offering tea. She was surprised that Khoi came forward so willingly to greet June and Sor, and it lifted her spirits to see how polite he was with the visitors. However, his face clouded over when June told him they would like to know what happened. He looked embarrassed and tried to slip out of the room, hanging his head. Finally, after hearing June and Sor tell a few of their own bad experiences, Khoi decided to open up. “OK,” he said, “This is what happened.”

“Last Thursday, one of my best friends got in a fight with a kid named Antonio and it looked like Antonio's friends were going to jump in to help him. I was just standing by to make sure that Tran was OK. Then the next thing I know, some teacher is pulling me by the arm, really twisting it hard, and I have to go to the assistant principal's office.” Khoi's voice dropped and his eyes darkened with shame and anger. “They treated me like I'd done something wrong, something horrible, when it turns out, it was just that I didn't understand. You're not supposed to stand close to a fight. They passed around a sheet that said you have to be 20 feet away. But I didn't know. So then I got in trouble.”

“Not only that,” Khoi continued, “but the teachers told me if it happened again, I would be suspended for 10 days next time. But it wasn't like I even did anything wrong. I just didn't understand. I didn't know because I couldn't read the paper.”

This case is based on an actual event, however, all the people represented are fictitious and the sequence of events is the invention of the author, Sylvia Sensiper.



Discussion Questions


  • How can June and Sor best help Mai?
  • How can Mai best help Khoi?
  • Should June and Sor approach Mike Horsmith again to try to get a meeting?
  • Should Mike Horsmith be responsible for having school regulations printed in the native language of every student in the school? What are some other activities, structures, education he should provide to students for whom English is not a native language? What other kinds of structures could he put in place to help students and their families develop ease in dealing with American cultural institutions?
  • What is the responsibility of students for knowing the rules and regulations at school?
  • If you were Mike Horsmith, what kind of program would you be interested in developing with TPACS?
  • Imagine you were June and/or Sor. What kind of relationship do you want to develop with the principals and schools. What kind of program do you think TPACS could develop with the schools?
  • Role-playing. Mike Horsmith has agreed to have a meeting with Mai and TPACS. Have four students volunteer to be Mai Nguyen, June Truong, Sor Piseth, and Mike Horsmith and allow them to develop a conversation/discussion.

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project