Middle Schoolers Hear Tragic Account Of Bullying, Teen Suicide
Father lost son to bullying in 2003, went on to lead drive for Vermont's anti-bullying legislation and a suicide prevention bill.
At assemblies earlier this week, students at Lynnfield Middle School heard the compelling and tragic story of the effects that bullying can have on entire families over the course of a lifetime.
John Halligan, a nationally known speaker and activist on bullying and suicide prevention, was at the school to describe how his son Ryan killed himself in 2003 at the age of 13 after years of being bullied at school.
Vermont's Bullying Law A Model For Other States
After Ryan's death, Halligan went on to lead the effort in what would become Vermont's bullying prevention law, which passed in 2004 just five months after its introduction in the legislature. From there, he successfully led a separate effort in 2006 that led to a Vermont state law aimed at preventing suicide.
In recent years, Halligan has also appeared on national TV broadcasts, including Oprah in 2009, the PBS Frontline special "Growing Up On-Line," and a 2006 Primetime with Diane Sawyer episode entitled "cruel intentions."
Assistant Principal Adam Federico introduced Halligan by saying that the first time he had heard the presentation, "it was absolutely one of the most powerful experiences I've had sitting in an audience."
Son Driven To Suicide By Bullying
Halligan, his voice often breaking with emotion, went on to describe the circumstances leading up to October 7, 2003, when Ryan's suicide was discovered. "My family's life will never be the same as it was before that day," Halligan told the audience, "… I kept asking the question, why? Why? Why?"
Recounting the story of Ryan's life, Halligan described how there were "some concerns" with the boy as early as age 2, with delays in his speech and fine motor skills. After relocating his family to Essex Junction, Vermont and as Ryan entered the 5th grade, Halligan described how the trouble with bullying began.
By 7th grade, in 2002, Halligan said that Ryan was at home night with his head down at the kitchen table asking if the family could home school him or move because he never wanted to go back to the school again. "This night is so burned into my memory," said Halligan. Ryan also begged his parents not to call the school about the bullying, convinced it would only make the situation worse.
Bullying Problems Not Always Apparent
Halligan also said that Ryan had found a niche for himself in drama and in music, learning the guitar and drums and by late 7th grade had even appeared to have the bullying problems largely behind him.
However, Halligan found after Ryan's suicide that in his 7th grade yearbook, he had written many angry comments on the faces of his tormentors in school, and that an extensive cache of online chat conversations revealed that bullies had been spreading rumors that he was gay and that a separate girl had been pretending to like him in a series of online conversations. "There is no greater pain than for a parent to lose a child," he added.
Story Of Tragedy, Reconciliation
The girl in question would actually go on to appear on the Diane Sawyer episode with Halligan and reportedly faced some tough questions as well as a severe backlash in school at the time.
"All of you are loved beyond belief. Trust me on this one," Halligan told the students. "Don't ever believe for a second that you don't matter."
The main bully in the incident also later tearfully apologized to Halligan after the grieving parent confronted him at his family's home. Halligan had gone to the house appalled that the bully had continued his online taunts of Ryan even after his suicide. "Hearing that kid say he sorry in a heartfelt sincere way meant a great deal to me," said Halligan.
Little Legal Recourse At First
After the suicide, one particularly frustrating finding for Halligan was that he had little legal recourse against the people who had driven his son to suicide. He got the momentum going with Vermont State Rep. Peter Hunt, who had also happened to be Ryan's grade school principal. The legislation aimed at boosting suicide prevention education in Vermont followed soon after that. The law would eventually pass in Massachusetts on bullying is actually apparently modeled on the Vermont one as well.
Toward the end of his presentation and before a question and answer session with the students, Halligan urged anyone in the young audience who may feel like Ryan did "to ask for help, don't be embarrassed, don't be ashamed." He added that "one of the biggest mistakes is not asking for help."
Editor's Note: To read the Massachusetts anti-bullying law, click here. Also, the Lynnfield School District maintains information on its website about its own bullying policies.Finally, the Halligan Family maintains this website.