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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011

In the wake of son’s suicide
Halligan warns of cyberbullying

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — John Halligan has devoted his life to preventing other families from going through what his has.

His son, Ryan, killed himself on Oct. 7, 2003 when he was 13.

“My first reaction to the tragedy was we needed to make changes,” Halligan told The Enterprise this week. “It’s been therapy for me to deal with my anger and grief.”

A maple tree now grows beside Ryan’s middle school in Essex Junction, Vt. Ryan’s mother, Kelly Halligan, came up with the wording on the tablet next to the tree: “Never forget the fragility of adolescence and Ryan Halligan.”

But the Halligans’ memorial for Ryan reaches further than that, in ever widening circles. “We’re all sticking together, we’re very close and supportive,” John Halligan said of his wife and children.

Halligan shepherded two bills through the Vermont legislature — one on bullying prevention in schools and the other on mandatory suicide prevention education — and he now crosses the country, speaking to students and their parents about the lessons he’s learned.

Halligan will be spending next Wednesday, May 18, in Guilderland, giving presentations to students during the day, and in the evening speaking to parents as part of a community forum sponsored by the Parent-Teacher Association. His presentation focuses on bullying, cyberbullying, and teen depression.

After Ryan’s death, Halligan discovered, when he logged on to the instant messaging account on his son’s computer, that he had been taunted for months. Halligan writes about the painful discovery in a website dedicated to his son, Ryan’s Story — www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org — in an essay titled, “If We Only Knew, If He Only Told Us.”

Describing his son as gentle and sensitive, Halligan says he was a loving boy who struggled academically and was hard on himself after graduating from a special-education program in fifth grade.

In middle school, a boy who had physically bullied Ryan for years relented after Ryan, who practiced with his father to defend himself, had held his own in a fistfight. Ryan then considered him a friend.

“My son the comedian told his new friend something embarrassing and funny that happened once and the friend (bully) ran with the new information that Ryan had something done to him and therefore Ryan must be gay,” writes Halligan. “The rumor and taunting continued beyond that school day…well into the night and during the summer of 2003. During the summer, my son approached a pretty, ‘popular’ girl from his school online and worked on establishing a relationship with her; I’m sure as a surefire way to quash the ‘gay’ rumor before everyone returned to school in the fall.

“When the eighth-grade school year started up again, Ryan approached his new girlfriend in person. I’m sure he was never prepared to handle what happened next. In front of her friends, she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she was only joking online. He found out that her friends and she thought it would be funny to make him think she liked him and to get him to say a lot of personal, embarrassing stuff. She copied and pasted their private IM exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.

“Now certainly, my son was not the first boy in history to be bullied and have his heart crushed by a pretty girl’s rejection. But when I discovered a folder filled with IM exchanges throughout the summer and further interviewed his classmates, I realized that technology was being utilized as weapons far more effective and reaching than the simple ones we had as kids….

“It’s one thing to be bullied and humiliated in front of a few kids. It’s one thing to feel rejection and have your heart crushed by a girl. But it has to be a totally different experience than a generation ago when these hurts and humiliation are now witnessed by a far larger, online adolescent audience. I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before computer and the Internet….”

Taking action

After Ryan’s death, Halligan first went to work, helping to create and lobby for a statewide bill, Vermont’s Bully Prevention Law, that establishes bullying prevention procedures for schools. “It is the number-one issue in middle school,” said Halligan of bullying, but schools didn’t have policies to deal with it. The bill was signed into law in May of 2004.

He later lobbied for a bill that mandated suicide prevention education in public school, which became law in Vermont in 2006.

“I got lucky,” Halligan said this week, talking about the bullying prevention law, because Ryan’s grade-school principal, Peter Hunt, had retired and become a legislator. “He came from inside the system and agreed schools weren’t taking it seriously enough,” said Halligan of bullying.

Hunt helped draft the bill and pushed it forward, said Halligan.

Since the bill became law, Halligan said, Vermont principals have told him it made their jobs easier by making it clear what had to get done.

“It put things in the right direction,” said Halligan. “The law was an important thing to do but not the only thing to do,” he said. “Parents have to take some ownership.”

About a year after the law was in place, Halligan was invited to speak at a Vermont school.

“I was reluctant,” he said. “I put together video clips” — home movies that introduced his son. He then talked about Ryan’s life and what led to his suicide.

“The kids were very receptive and very respectful,” said Halligan. “I heard later that kids were apologizing to each other after I left.”

Spreading the word

Halligan’s presentations became popular in Vermont.

“I also did presentations for parents,” he said. “My goal is to give parents information I wish my wife and I had had. With students, I tell my son’s life story. They appreciate me not lecturing them. They’re smart enough to connect the dots themselves.”

His presentation also features the importance of forgiveness.

Halligan said of his mission to educate and enlighten. “It started off as not a plan at all.”

Two years ago, he left his job as an engineer at IBM to devote himself full-time to his mission. He and his family live now in Farmington, N.Y., near the Finger Lakes. From there, he has traveled throughout the United States, covering about half of the country, to speak at over 500 schools. He’s also visited three provinces in Canada and recently spoke at a school in Colombia, South America.

All of his bookings are through word of mouth.

“The amazing thing about schools is they’re all interconnected,” said Halligan. “It’s like a spider web.” Teachers or administrators attending a conference, for example, will talk about what programs are effective, he said.

Halligan has also appeared on a half-dozen national television shows, including Good Morning America, PBS Frontline, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Halligan is now busy throughout the school year and appreciates the two months of “down time” he gets every summer. Asked if there is an end in sight, he said, “I’ve thought about that a lot.” His exhausting avocation will end in one of two ways: “The story will get stale and no one will invite me,” he said, “or I’ll stop on Ryan’s 30th birthday, eight years from now.”

“Kids have power”

No matter how many times he makes his presentation. Halligan said, “The pain never goes away. You never get over losing a child.”

What keeps him at it, he said, are the responses he gets from the kids. The e-mails he receives fall into three groups:

— Students who were feeling suicidal say that they’ve changed their minds because, after listening to Halligan, they understand the pain it would bring;

— Kids who were bullies and now realize they were jerks, he said, and apologize to their victims; and

— Bystanders who have witnessed bullying and get the message that they have a role to play; they realize that they can stop the bullying by standing up to their friend, said Halligan.

“I tell the kids that they have the most power,” he said. Guilderland surveys bear this out.

A Guilderland survey this school year found that 48 percent of upper-level elementary students (in third, fourth, and fifth grades), 72 percent of middle-school students, and 68 percent of high-school students had witnessed bullying. The same survey, reflecting national trends, showed that 32 percent of upper-elementary students, 39 percent of middle-school students, and 33 percent of high-school students were bullied in school or on the way to school.

A 2004 Guilderland survey found that, while over a quarter of Guilderland students were afraid of bullying some of the time, nearly a third said school staff intervened in bullying “almost never”; similarly, 60 percent of self-reported bullies said that staff had not talked to them about bullying.

“Down a dark hole”

Suicide prevention is also a large part of Halligan’s mission. “Students are under so much stress,” he said. “The intensity has gotten worse. The drama is 24//7…Kids have so many gadgets in their hands, they never take a break from social interaction. They can still be texting while Mom and Dad are in bed.”

Pressure, both academic and social, Halligan said, “is greater than it’s ever been.”

He said of the new technology, “It’s made meanness easier.”

The Ryan’s Story website devotes a section to suicide prevention, outlining warning signs (like sadness, declining grades, sleeping too much or too little, change in appetite); actions parents can take (get medical or mental-health help, listen, and become informed); actions teens can take (talk to a trusted adult, encourage professional help).

Halligan said he hopes parents of even very young children will come to his presentation next Wednesday night. “They have a better chance of heading it off than those with kids in the thick of it,” he said.

Referring to parents’ allowing use of electronic devices, he said, “Once you’ve said ‘yes,’ it’s hard to back off. Parents of a young child would benefit greatly by deciding ahead.”

Although the account he gives of his son’s life shows that Ryan had parents who were close to him and supportive, Halligan doesn’t let himself off the hook.

“For too long,” he writes, “we have let kids and adults bully others as a rite of passage into adulthood inside a school building. We place accountability for this tragedy, first and foremost, on ourselves as his parents…but also on Ryan’s school administration, staff and the young people involved. As parents, we failed to hold the school accountable to maintain an emotionally safe environment for our son while he was alive. But accountability and responsibility should be shared by all involved — parents, bullies, bystanders, teachers and school administrators…basically the whole system.”

“Your kids don’t always tell you everything, no matter how close you are,” Halligan said this week. He said it’s important to establish other adults a kid can trust, so he feels he has someone he can talk to.

Teen depression, Halligan said, is tied in with the isolation that can come with the use or over-use of the new technology. A teen using a computer behind a closed door, he said, “can quickly go down a dark hole.”

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