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.orgEndFragment