A flight training school in Texas is facing a lawsuit from the aggrieved family of a Chinese student who committed suicide after allegedly being mistreated at the institution.
Yan Yang, 21, was found dead on the morning of April 16, 2019, in his dormitory at the Denton-based U.S. Aviation Academy (USAA), also known as U.S. Aviation Group (USAG).
In the suit filed on Sept. 21, Yang’s parents accused the school of discriminatory practices that target Chinese students, which ultimately drove their son to hang himself. These include “Chinese-only” physical tasks and humiliating punishments for those who violate its English-only speaking policy.
In publicized images, violators are seen holding signs stating that they had broken the language rule. One photo shows a student’s 14-hour daily schedule that included “holding doors open for staff, cleaning scuff marks off of floors and cleaning toilets at night,” according to CBS DFW.
USAA, which opened in January 2006, is one of the largest flight training schools in America. As part of its accreditation, it is regularly audited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Civil Aviation Authority of China, as well as onsite reviews from Chinese airlines that contract it to train pilots, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Michael Sykes, the school’s chief executive officer, has since refused to take responsibility for Yang’s death. Rejecting allegations of discrimination, he claims that Yang’s poor mental health resulted from his own poor academic performance.
“Mr. Yan was a student who did not meet the FAA safety and quality standards,” Sykes said in a statement. “We requested permission to cease Mr. Yan’s training from his airline in October 2018. They initially denied our request and we asked that they reconsider. They still denied the request and so additional training was provided. Mr. Yan continued to perform below an acceptable level and fall farther and farther behind his classmates. Now, as we look back, we all wish that the original request would have been accepted. Mr. Yan would be safely back at home in China right now.”
He added, “Becoming a pilot also requires natural talent, too… In our judgment, Mr. Yan did not possess the natural ability to become a pilot. We are deeply saddened that he was not allowed to return to China to pursue another career path.”
Shenzen Airlines selected Yang to attend USAA in 2018. He was “bright, motivated and well-respected” among his peers prior to entering the Denton school, according to the lawsuit.
Jianghao Liu, an alumnus and former mentor, described Yang as a student who would “always go above and beyond what was required of students.” He learned about Yang’s struggles and reported it to the school, but “they did not care” about Yang’s feelings and “ignored” his complaints.
Liu added that non-Chinese students are not punished as harshly when caught speaking their native language. “I have personally observed students from other countries, including Cambodia, Africa and Mexico, speaking their native language in front of [US Aviation Academy] staff and were never punished,” he said, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
The academy student handbook also states that Chinese students can only live in school-provided accommodations. They cannot use vehicles not owned by the academy and cannot take trips outside their apartments.
Yang’s parents are accusing USAA of intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, negligence and wrongful death. They are seeking at least $1 million and non-monetary relief, in addition to “all other relief to which Plaintiffs may be justly entitled.”
Feature Images via Yang Family