Teen Stages Suicide in Front of Classmates
A 17-year-old Granada Hills High School senior known for his quirky, intelligent and sometimes dark personality pulled his Toyota MR2 sports car onto the campus parking lot early Friday, set up a video camera and, after turning up the radio, shot himself to death in front of classmates.
“It was horrible,” said Gina Romero, a 10th-grader who saw the shooting. “He put on some music, I don’t know what, set up a camera, then shot himself in the head.”
Students who watched the 7 a.m. suicide said that at first they could not believe it was real. “They thought it was a movie,” said Pia Escudero, a field coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s mental health services unit.
“He had on KROQ real loud and there was this camera and then he shot off half of his face,” said John Williams, a senior at the school. “It was unreal.”
A health teacher rushed to aid the student, Kevin Leung, who was taken by ambulance from the north San Fernando Valley campus to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center. The teenager was pronounced dead at 8:30 a.m., said Granada Hills High Principal Brian Bauer. The Los Angeles Police Department retrieved the videotape but would not reveal what, if anything, Leung had said.
The weapon used was a .380 semiautomatic handgun, police said.
Leung was described by friends as highly intelligent. He was a fan of techno music who often dyed his hair different colors, spent hours on the Internet and dreamed of a career in filmmaking. He worked part time at a photo lab and was a member of the Key Club, a campus service group.
Leung made a 21-minute movie last year for an English class with fellow student Daniel Winston, 17. The movie, titled “The Stranger,” ends when the protagonist, a high school student, is shot by a bounty hunter.
Winston described Leung as “brilliant,” and “extremely perceptive"--a complicated and intriguing personality who, though not always socially adept, was well-known among students at other local high schools. He said Leung was intellectually curious but too restless to be a deep reader; a teenager who charmed even teachers with his iconoclasm.
“One of the things our AP physics teacher said was that Kevin had a philosophy of ‘I don’t care,’ but he could present it in such a way that it looked like a convincing way to live your life,” he said.
Procrastination, however, was one of Leung’s biggest problems, Winston said. Leung had been putting off completing his application to the University of California, which was due Thursday, and revising his personal statement: an essay on his love of photography.
Winston said his friend had threatened suicide numerous times, sometimes mischievously, sometimes seriously. He said Leung was inspired by the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War, and had once suggested, in a moment of dark humor, traveling to Washington to immolate himself in the lap of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial.
Recently, Winston said, Leung had been having girl trouble. Winston said he got a call Thursday night from a female friend who said Leung was again threatening to kill himself. But Winston did not take the threat seriously.
“He was just a real friendly, nice person,” said Farid Bavarian, a Granada Hills senior.
But two weeks ago, Leung asked his English teacher for scissors and then announced he was going to stab someone, Farid said. Leung was apparently suspended for a week.
“I was at the counselor’s office the other day and someone was saying he had a problem and that he was very depressed,” said Jason Tejada, a ninth-grader.
“We knew he had a lot of problems,” said Escudero, a member of the crisis counseling team dispatched to the Granada Hills campus to help students and faculty.
A family friend at the Leungs’ Northridge home said Kevin’s parents did not want to talk about their son’s death.
The suicide was the second in less than a month involving a student from the 3,700-pupil campus, one of the bright lights of the L.A. Unified district. Two weeks ago, a female student tied weights to her ankles and drowned herself in her family’s swimming pool, officials said.
Leung and the girl were not friends, students said. “Both were referred to counseling,” Escudero said. “But it does not appear [the suicides] were related.” Escudero said suicides are rare in L.A. Unified, estimating that there are no more than six each year among the district’s 700,000 students.
By midday Friday, more than a dozen crisis team members set up shop at the school.
“We have a full cadre of counselors to assist our students,” said Bauer, in only his second day on the job as principal.
Counselors will be available for parents and students at the school from 8 to 11 a.m. today, and a crisis team will be at the school Monday.
Teenagers who commit suicide in such a public manner usually have a romantic notion that their act will immortalize them, said Michael Gerson, a child-and-adolescent psychologist in Westlake Village. “It is a last statement to the world, usually a statement of anger and protest,” he said.
Teenagers and adults who witnessed Friday’s suicide might experience ongoing trauma, including acute depression and recurring nightmares, Gerson said. “The more shocking the act,” he said, “the higher the risk.”
After school let out Friday, Leung’s friends surrounded his car, some squeegeeing his windows clean. Pink and yellow roses were placed on the roof and trunk of the white two-seat car. Sitting on the curb, two girls cried and hugged each other. Another girl swore at a TV news cameraman.
“Get out of here,” she screamed. “Show Kevin some respect.”
Winston said he wished his friend had been able to resolve the discordant aspects of his personality.
“He expressed all of these emotions that he always felt lost, but he couldn’t codify it,” he said. “I had to say, ‘You have to read the myth of Sisyphus and realize a lot of people have gone through this same existential crisis.’ He’d pick it up and read a few pages.”
Times staff writers Hilary E. MacGregor, Rosie Mestel and Kristina Sauerwein contributed to this story. Krikorian is a Times staff writer; Fausset is a correspondent.