Ryan Halligan was 13 years old when he killed himself on Oct. 7, 2003 after being the victim of persistent bullying and cyber-bullying. His father, John Halligan, subsequently became a strong advocate for anti-bullying legislature and public education.
Halligan visited Secaucus on Wednesday, Jan. 20 to provide three heartfelt presentations on anti-bullying and suicide prevention. The first two were offered during daytime assemblies to students of the high school and middle school. The third was presented at night to local parents.
“You could hear a pin drop” during the student presentations, said High School Principal Robert “Dr. Bob” Berckes. “They really appreciated it very, very much.”
“It was fantastic,” added Middle School Principal Robert Valente. “It’s just a man talking about his story and his son’s story, but so many of the kids were moved by it. One of my eighth grade girls said it was the best assembly she’s ever had in her life.”
Parents were similarly enthusiastic about the evening session, thanking Halligan for sharing his story and for providing handouts with suggestions on how to take positive steps in helping children cope.
Ryan Halligan was a slow developer at first and participated in special education classes up to the fourth grade. He continued to struggle academically afterward, and in fifth grade he began to encounter bullying, from one student in particular.
In the presentation John Halligan stressed that bullying alone did not cause his son’s suicide.
“We don’t blame Ryan’s suicide on one single person or one single event. In the end, Ryan was suffering from depression. In some way he was preconditioned mentally to respond to bullying in such an extreme way. This is a form of mental illness that is brought on by biological and/or environmental factors,” he explains on his website, ryansstory.org. “Tragically, teenage depression often goes camouflaged against the backdrop of typical teen angst. And since most of us have never received basic education in the signs and prevention of teenage suicide at any point in our lives, young people suffering from depression are at even greater risk.”
“Bullying through technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt.” –John Halligan
That, it turned out, was a mistake. Ryan shared personal information that the bully turned inside out and used to spread rumors. At the same time Ryan engaged in an online relationship with a girl who turned out to be leading him on in order to humiliate him in front of her friends.
Among the key points of the presentation is the fact that bullying requires three roles: the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders. Bullies need spectators to acknowledge their power. Halligan urged students who are bystanders at incidents to make a positive difference. If they are friends of the bully, they should make it known that they disapprove of the actions.
What parents can do
The evening presentation had a very different focus, as evidenced by its title: “If I Could Have a Do-over – A Father’s Hard-earned Lessons About Cyber-bullying, Depression, and Suicide.”
“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,” says Halligan on his website. “Bullying through technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt to levels that will probably result in a rise in teen suicide rates. Recent statistics indicate that indeed teen suicide is on the rise again after many years of declining rates.”
Consequently, Halligan provided guidelines and suggestions for parents in regards to technology. One important tip that turned out to be crucial to Halligan himself was that there should be a single family password that kids use on all accounts, and parents should know what it is so they can access the accounts in the event of an emergency.
That was critical after Ryan committed suicide without leaving a note, as often happens. John Halligan spent countless days trying to piece together what happened and why, and it was only through technology that he was able to connect with Ryan’s friends and track down some answers.
Halligan was quick to point out his own lapses as a parent overseeing the growth, development, and safety of his child, such as dismissing Ryan’s depression as a phase, and suggesting Ryan simply ignore the bully rather than taking it to the school to be addressed.
Where to find more information
In memory of Ryan, John successfully lobbied in 2004 and 2006 for laws in Vermont establishing bullying prevention and suicide prevention procedures for schools. He was asked to speak at a local school in 2005 and shared Ryan’s story, finding that it resonated deeply with the students.
As word of mouth spread and he was asked to speak at other schools, he developed the parallel presentation for parents. He quit his job at IBM in 2009 and has dedicated his life to this cause ever since, traveling internationally to present at more than 1,300 schools and appearing TV programs including Primetime with Diane Sawyer, PBS Frontline, and Oprah.
Interim Schools Superintendent Ken Knops had invited Halligan to speak at several other schools in the past, and was quick to bring him to Secaucus. “He got a standing ovation from all your children,” Knops told the evening audience.
Halligan’s website, ryansstory.org, offers a wealth of valuable information on depression, suicide prevention, and anti-bullying. Parents and children can benefit from reading about Halligan’s personal experiences, and find extensive tips on warning signs as well as actions to take.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Secaucus school officials receive anti-bullying training
District personnel for the Secaucus School District received an extensive “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Refresher” through a half day in-service training session offered through Strauss-Esmay Associates, the provider of policies for 480 school districts in the United States.
The training commenced with Interim Superintendent Kenneth Knops providing all in attendance with a brief historical overview of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights adoption in the state Legislature and its subsequent adoption into harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) policies in school districts. He then introduced Strauss-Esmay Vice President Dr. Phil Nicastro. Nicastro began his presentation by highlighting the definition of a HIB, investigations of HIB, consequences for HIB, and case law pertaining to HIB cases. Throughout the course of his presentation, Nicastro fielded numerous questions from his audience of district administrators, principals, anti-bullying specialists, anti-bullying coordinator, and Board of Education members. As a wrap-up to the session, various scenarios were presented to the attendees, with the attendees being charged with determining whether the stated scenario was an HIB or a conflict.
“As a district we felt the training was most beneficial to our staff,” said Knops. “Changes have been made in the HIB policy since its inception in 2011, and by bringing everyone together we are assured everyone is on the same page and apprised of the latest developments and case laws with HIB. Dr. Nicastro and his associate, Cindy Herrick, provided all in attendance with a most thorough and comprehensive in-service on this most important topic.”