A tragic lesson in bullying

— His son was barely a teen­ager when he took his own life after years of bul­ly­ing, and John Hal­ligan shared his hor­rif­ic ac­count with stu­dents at a Somer­ton charter school.

John P. Hal­ligan speaks to a group of ninth-grade stu­dents at MaST Com­munity Charter School about his son’s sui­cide from in-school bul­ly­ing on Feb. 14.


John Hal­ligan’s 13-year-old son com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2003 after sev­er­al years of bul­ly­ing, and the man con­tin­ues to give pas­sion­ate speeches about the ex­per­i­ence to young audi­ences.

Hal­ligan doesn’t sug­ar­coat any­thing, in­clud­ing the im­pact the death has had on him, his wife, Kelly, and their oth­er two chil­dren.

“My son is dead, and the rest of us are wounded for life,” he told eighth- and ninth-graders dur­ing a re­cent vis­it to MaST Com­munity Charter School.

Megan Hal­ligan was a high school seni­or when she found her broth­er.

“She’s nev­er been the same ever since,” her dad said.

Hal­ligan has spoken at about 1,300 schools in the last dec­ade.

Dur­ing two Feb. 14 as­sem­blies at MaST, at 1800 E. By­berry Road, he urged the young people to show cour­age and guts when they see bul­ly­ing, not be a mere bystand­er.

“Stand up to a friend who’s bul­ly­ing oth­er people,” he said.

As for those be­ing bul­lied, Hal­ligan said fam­ily can be the great com­fort­er.

“You guys are loved bey­ond be­lief. Don’t ever lose sight of that,” he said.

Middle school coun­selor Nancy Jachim­ski ar­ranged the vis­it.

Hal­ligan showed a short video and pic­tures of his son Ry­an and answered ques­tions from the stu­dents.

Today, the Hal­ligans live in Farm­ing­dale, N.Y., but Ry­an’s sad story takes place in Es­sex Junc­tion, Vt.

The boy was bul­lied on and off from fifth to sev­enth grade by the same group of kids, in­clud­ing a ringlead­er.

The MaST stu­dents were very at­tent­ive as they heard how Ry­an asked his par­ents if the fam­ily could move or he could be home-schooled to avoid the bul­ly­ing.

Neither op­tion was feas­ible, and Ry­an and his dad began watch­ing the Billy Blanks Tae Bo box­ing and ex­er­cise videos. Ry­an and the bully even­tu­ally had a fight, but that re­solved the is­sue for only a short time.

In the sum­mer of 2003, be­fore his eighth-grade year at Al­bert D. Law­ton Middle School, Ry­an spent a lot of time on the com­puter, mostly us­ing AOL in­stant mes­sen­ger.

On­line, he com­mu­nic­ated with a pop­u­lar and pretty fe­male class­mate named Ash­ley, who in­dic­ated she liked him. When school opened, he ap­proached her in per­son.

“Ry­an, you’re just a loser,” she told him in front of her friends. “I don’t want to have any­thing to do with you. I was just jok­ing.”

On Oct. 7 of that year, he com­mit­ted sui­cide.

The teen did not leave a note, but his fath­er ac­cessed his com­puter. Hal­ligan learned that his son was the sub­ject of a false ru­mor, star­ted by the bully, that he was gay. He also saw that Ash­ley had copied and pas­ted his per­son­al on­line mes­sages for oth­ers to see.

Look­ing back, Hal­ligan be­lieves his son died of un­detec­ted de­pres­sion, brought on by bul­ly­ing that snow­balled in­to a boulder that was too much to bear.

After the sui­cide, many people blamed Ash­ley for the death. She felt so re­morse­ful that she was con­sidered a sui­cide risk.

A de­tect­ive who vis­ited the bully de­scribed him as a “smart aleck” after ac­know­ledging he star­ted the ru­mor that Ry­an was gay.

At the time, Ver­mont did not have any crim­in­al stat­utes dir­ectly re­lated to bul­ly­ing. That changed in a hurry. State Rep. Peter Hunt, who was Ry­an’s ele­ment­ary school prin­cip­al, in­tro­duced a bill that quickly passed the le­gis­lature and was signed by Gov. Jim Douglas in 2004.

Two months after Ry­an’s death, a fath­er of a stu­dent told Hal­ligan that the bully was run­ning his mouth at school, re­peat­ing the “gay” ru­mor and say­ing that the boy was weak and couldn’t handle life.

Hal­ligan de­cided to drive to the bully’s house.

“I wanted to kill him,” he said.

The man knocked on the door, and the bully answered. He didn’t re­cog­nize Hal­ligan, since he didn’t both­er go­ing to Ry­an’s view­ing or fu­ner­al.

The bully’s par­ents let Hal­ligan in­to the house, and he men­tioned the agony his son ex­per­i­enced. The bully denied the claims, ex­plain­ing that he was a friend of Ry­an’s.

“You’re ly­ing,” Hal­ligan said.

The bully star­ted to apo­lo­gize.

“This tough kid star­ted to cry,” Hal­ligan said.

As the bully sobbed and his par­ents sat in stunned si­lence, Hal­ligan let him­self out of the house, nev­er to see or hear from them ever again. He learned that the bully kept quiet about Ry­an the rest of the school year.

If Hal­ligan could do one thing dif­fer­ently, he’d have gone to the bully’s house when he first learned of the har­ass­ment.

Con­or Hal­ligan, who is now in eighth grade, has aut­ism and was the vic­tim of bul­ly­ing as a fourth-grader. The Hal­ligans met with that bully’s par­ents.

“We’ve nev­er had a prob­lem since,” John Hal­ligan said.

As for Ash­ley, she is now 22. In 2006, as a high school sopho­more, she ap­peared with Hal­ligan on ABC’s Prime­time with Di­ane Saw­yer to dis­cuss the evils of bul­ly­ing.

Hal­ligan urged the MaST stu­dents to alert someone — their par­ents, oth­er re­l­at­ives, a fam­ily friend, a teach­er or a coun­selor — if they have sui­cid­al thoughts.

“Tell them straight up,” he said.

At one time, young people who were be­ing bul­lied could de­fend them­selves with their fists. Today, bul­ly­ing can take place on the In­ter­net.

“You’re not go­ing to solve the prob­lem in today’s world with a punch,” Hal­ligan said.

Af­ter­ward, sev­er­al stu­dents shook Hal­ligan’s hand and told them they ap­pre­ci­ated his telling the story. One girl stayed to have a dis­cus­sion with him and Jachim­ski, the coun­selor.

Hal­ligan hopes he is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. He re­calls get­ting a writ­ten re­sponse from one fe­male stu­dent, who told him that, after listen­ing to his re­marks, she apo­lo­gized to every per­son she tor­men­ted over the years.

“I will nev­er erase that e-mail,” he said. ••

For more in­form­a­tion, vis­it www.ry­an­patrick­hal­ligan.org


You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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