Ten years ago this month, John Halligan lost his 13-year-old son Ryan to suicide after years of bullying that became more intense over internet exchanges in the months before the tragedy.
Halligan, who lived in Vermont at the time, went on to spearhead a new anti-bullying law in the state shortly after his son’s suicide, and has since traveled around the country to tell “Ryan’s Story” to more than 800 schools. Ninth and tenth grade students gathered in the high school gym Wednesday to hear the presentation, which spared no details of the emotional pain Halligan has carried with him the last decade.
“My life, my family’s life, will never be the same after that day,” he told students, some of whom became visibly emotional through the intimate recollection of Ryan’s struggles through school.
Ryan, Halligan said, had struggled academically through his elementary years, and social problems followed in fifth grade when the atmosphere in his school became toxic with cliques and bullying. At first, his son faced traditional bullying from a boy his age, but it became more intense in middle school when other bullies and their friends began to employ instant messaging to start - and rapidly spread - vicious rumors about him over the internet.
“It’s so easy to hide behind a screen and text stuff that you would never have the guts to say,” Halligan said, emphasizing the new challenges that teens face on the web. In prior generations, he said, social problems could often be settled by standing up for oneself, something he tried to encourage Ryan to do by helping him learn self defense.
But Ryan's parents found that the use of the internet made their son's bullying anonymous, persistent and hard to stop.
“I’ve seen him speak before, and the message is very impacting,” said RHS Principal Tom Gorman. He brought Halligan to the school, he said, to begin a dialogue among students about the issues of mental health and cyber bullying.
After the hour-long presentation, students broke down into smaller groups to discuss the story with faculty and peer counselors, two groups that Gorman says play a role in a strong anti-bullying program at the high school, regularly educating and supporting students on the issue.
“The whole debriefing was to hear the students and help them digest it, and show them where to go to resolve issues,” Gorman said. “We have a great faculty and staff that interact with students on a daily basis.”
Halligan, in recalling the details of the days after his son’s suicide, described ransacking the house in search of a suicide note, hoping for an explanation. The explanation came from archived internet chats between his son and a girl named Ashley, who later expressed her remorse for pretending to like Ryan in order to obtain and spread personal details about him.
After years of suffering from depression and bullying, Halligan said, that was the final straw. The day before his suicide, friends saw Ryan tell her: "It's girls like you that make me want to kill myself."
The message to students from the still grieving father was for those in need to seek help from parents or the services available at the school, and for those that witness bullying to stand up to it even when not personally effected.
“The bystander is a big part of the problem here,” Halligan said. “One friend of Ashley, one friend of that boy could have changed Ryan’s story, and I wouldn’t be here today.”
Read more about Ryan's story here.