Saturday will mark another sad anniversary of the May 4, 1983, stabbing death of Davis High School student Thong Hy Huynh, who died on campus, during the school day, in a racially motivated attack.
For Gina Daleiden — who was a student at Davis High in 1983, and is in her second term as a Davis school board member — the tragedy that occurred 30 years ago is more than a lingering memory.
Daleiden recalls that on the day Huynh, 17, was stabbed and died “there was a terrible sense of shock and disbelief that such a tragedy could occur here. I remember wondering how something so violent could have happened on campus, at my school, a place where I and most others I knew, felt generally safe and comfortable.”
In 1983, there had been friction on campus between a small group of white students and a small group of Vietnamese students. (Huynh was born in Vietnam in 1965, and his family came to California by way of Taiwan.) There had been a recent confrontation in the park, and harsh words had been exchanged.
A dispute between Huynh and student Jay Pierman, 16, occurred that day during a passing period between classes on the east side of campus. Pierman, who had a reputation as a bully, went to his car, parked in the nearby Veterans’ Memorial Center parking lot, and returned carrying what has been variously described as a hunting knife, a scuba knife or a bayonet-type knife. Some students later testified that Pierman kept the long knife under the driver’s seat of the car he drove to school daily.
Pierman attacked, plunging the blade deep into the other boy’s torso. Huynh suffered massive internal injuries and quickly lost a lot of blood. The teenager died a few minutes later in the courtyard, in the arms of Davis police Sgt. Jerry Gonzales, with a crowd of about 100 students looking on.
The racially motivated on-campus killing came as a shock. The school system is supposed to provide a safe learning environment for all students, and protect them from bullying and attacks, and that system failed on May 4, 1983.
“Creating physically as well as emotionally safe classrooms and schools for students will always be our focus,” said Superintendent Winfred Roberson. “The 30th anniversary of this tragic event informs us of our growth and also serves as a reminder of how important it is to continually model acceptance and inclusion as a district and community.”
Huynh was a immigrant, a refugee and a student who would nowadays be described as an English learner. By most accounts, he was a quiet student who didn’t socialize a lot, and didn’t attract much attention. His mother said she had moved her family to Davis in part because she thought it would be a safe place for her eldest son to get a high school education, and become the family breadwinner; he reportedly planned to become a welder.
Pierman was charged with murder, but ultimately was convicted on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years in the California Youth Authority — a sentence that Huynh’s mother felt was too lenient.
There was a good deal of community soul-searching in the aftermath of the deadly campus altercation. Daleiden recalls that “from my perspective as a student, especially among those of us in student government, there was a renewed effort to improve the feeling of inclusiveness on campus and to pay greater attention to all students and how we looked out for each other.”
A memorial plaque was put up in the courtyard where Huynh died, and an observance of the slaying involving students and staff is held most years in early May. The city of Davis Human Relations Commission established the annual Thong Hy Huynh Memorial Award. The first award was bestowed in 1986, and awards are now given in two categories — young humanitarian award and civil rights advocacy.
Daleiden, who graduated from Davis High in 1985, said that “serving on the Davis school board many years later, I think of Thong and the attack when we face decisions about student discipline involving weapons. My experience probably makes me much stricter about consequences and more likely to weigh heavily any potential threat to the safety of the school.
“I do believe we have made strides in terms of continually updating emergency preparedness, and the safety of our schools and our students and staff is paramount,” Daleiden continued. “I know there has been good work in our classrooms teaching tolerance and the programs at schools aimed at making every student feel included, but it is important to remain vigilant and actively work to avoid other senseless tragedies.”
School board president Sheila Allen said “the memory of the loss of Thong H. Huynh on our Davis High campus stands as a reminder of importance of our community providing a safe, supportive and inclusive school environment where every one of our students is valued and the universal culture is that no one will stand by quietly while someone is being bullied.
“The Davis school board thanks the city of Davis for their annual Thong Huynh Award to help to keep these values in the forefront.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.