Halligan spreads message of anti-bullying to East students

Danielle Fox ('13)/Eastside Entertainment Editor

John Halligan reached out to the senior and junior classes this morning and afternoon in a poignant assembly regarding a consequence of unrelenting bullying: suicide.

In 2003, Halligan’s son Ryan committed suicide after falling into a period of depression as a result of persistent ridicule both at school and online.

After displaying a brief picture presentation as a formal introduction to his son, Halligan shared Ryan’s story. Up until the start of the fifth grade, Ryan had been classified with and had dealt with a motor and a learning disability. Although he was placed in a regular classroom, Ryan faced teasing from a particular group of boys, who often looked to draw attention to his awkwardness when it came to athleticism or his occasional slowness during some classroom activities.

When Ryan began middle school at Essex Junction Middle School in Vermont, the bullying precipitated, once again, incited by the same group of boys who had targeted him in the fifth grade. In the unsettling, judgment-based-on-association environment of middle school, Halligan said Ryan desperately wanted to find a haven outside of the tormenting bullying he faced in school. After establishing that neither a school transfer nor going to school authorities was a viable option, Ryan had a request for his father: “Dad, I want you to teach me how to fight,” Halligan said.

“I immediately thought of the movie Karate Kid,” Halligan said.

Halligan and his wife, Kelly, bought Ryan the “Taebo” kickboxing training kit for Christmas. The father and son began what Halligan refers to as the “Karate Kid Plan.” Each night, they would practice together in the basement, bonding over a strength and character-building activity. One afternoon, Ryan got into a fistfight with the leader of the bullying pack. He reported back to his parents that he did not believe this kid would ever try to belittle him again. However, this was a misinterpretation that Halligan grew to understand much later, he said.

“It’s not about throwing punches, it’s about throwing words,” Halligan said.

Bullying was no longer a case of swinging a punch, leaving the victim with a black eye. Rather, it was a case where this unappeasable meanness could be manifested online, an ominous world where bullying is easily, yet disconcertingly, concealed, Halligan said.

Halligan said, “A kid once said to me, ‘It’s easy to show people a black eye but not a bruised heart.”

Little did Ryan’s parents know at the time, Ryan was enduring cyber-bullying during the seventh grade and the summer of eighth grade. The ring leader had once again resumed bullying Ryan, particularly by spreading a rumor around the school that Ryan was gay. Halligan explained that he perceived Ryan’s summer spent typing away on the computer as an activity that was commonplace to any thirteen-year-old kid. However, Ryan had really been spending all of his time trying put an end to the vicious rumors, Halligan said.

Ryan was also hurt by a classmate, Ashley, who thought it would be funny to pretend to like him online and then disseminate personal information he shared to the student body. After Ryan’s suicide, Halligan had one question: why?

Much searching soon provided the missing parts of the story, such as Ryan’s private world online and the bitter messages that spurred him into a depression. Halligan, then, had a second question: how could this tragedy have been prevented?

When Halligan spoke with the school, he realized that his son had been right. The middle school’s plan to deal with conflict—having the persons involved sit down to “work it out”—was ineffective, and would have only worked to heighten the bullying. Seeing that Vermont had no official bullying law, Halligan worked to initiate the legislation that eventually culminated as Vermont’s Bully Prevention Law, which was signed in 2004. In 2006, Vermont’s Suicide Prevention Law was passed.

However, Halligan urges students to realize that, though necessary litigation can help a bullying case, it will, by no means, solve the problem. “There are speeding laws, but people still speed. There are bullying laws, but people still bully. We are not going to solve this problem until young people tell their friends to knock it off,” said Halligan, who still swears that if one person had spoken up to the bully about the possible consequence of his actions,  perhaps his son’s story may have been different.

Halligan appeared with Ashley on “Primetime” for a special on bullying.  Both have dedicated their lives to spreading the message of anti-bullying and the effects of remaining silent in the presence of mistreatment.

“You can always turn an ink dot into a butterfly. You can always turn a mistake into a lesson learned,” said Halligan, quoting his art teacher from high school.

Halligan emphasized two key thoughts for the students to walk away with. The first is the knowledge that it is the students who have the power to quell the voice of bullying. The second is that everyone is loved deeply by someone, and that every individual seated in the assembly room has someone in his or her life who would be devastated if such a loss as Ryan’s was to occur.

“When you bully a person, you bully the entire family,” Halligan insisted.

Halligan said he will continue to travel to schools, both local and national, to share his story and to spread his message. He encourages those students who have been touched by his story to visit ryanpatrickhalligan.com, a website dedicated to his son, for more information.

On the homepage of the website, there is an image of the memorial at Ryan’s middle school. A tree was planted in his honor, and it is accompanied by a stone that reads, “Never forget the fragility of adolescence and Ryan Halligan.”

One thing is for certain: Cherry Hill East never will.