SUMMIT, NJ - Minutes removed from a presentation to the school's eighth grade students, and hours after a mirrored session with seventh graders, John Halligan sits in the conference room at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School (LCJSMS) looking like a man who has just completed an endurance event. He appears drained, physically and emotionally. Only he is not drenched in sweat, but rather soaked in layers of grief and regret.
It has been nearly 10 years to the day since the phone rang in the hotel room he was occupying on a business trip. It was six o'clock in the morning. It was his wife on the other end of the line. Something horrible had happened. Their 13 year-old son, Ryan, had taken his own life.
How does a person cope with the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child? Factor in the circumstances of his passing, and it is incomprehensible that anyone would find the strength to go forward, let alone with the courage, purpose and conviction that Halligan has demonstrated for the past decade. His talk to the LCJSMS students was his 200th such presentation this year alone, and he has delivered his powerful message more than 850 times since that fateful day in 2003. Halligan also spoke to LCJSMS parents, delivering a different, but complimentary, message focusing on the effects of bullying, cyberbullying and youth depression -- all which led to the loss of his son.
Ryan Halligan was diagnosed with delayed speech, language skills, and motor skills when he was just over two years-old. Through the help of special education professionals in their school system, Ryan soon caught up to his peer group in those areas, and appeared to be living the life of any typical child. He was not proficient in sports, but he participated. A 23-year employee of IBM, Halligan's job relocation had taken the family to Vermont and he, his wife and three children all appeared to be living a normal life together. Things, changed, however, when Ryan was in the fifth grade.
Ryan began to get bullied, primarily by one boy with words, due to his academic struggles and relative awkwardness in physical education. There were tearful moments at the dinner table. Halligan and his wife told their son what most parents feel is correct -- ignore the kid, don't give him the satisfaction of knowing it is bothering you and, simply, walk away. But things did not go away, and just three months into middle school, Ryan told his parents that he "hated school, wanted to be home-schooled" and asked if they could move. Apparently Ryan, now enjoying the band and drama at school, was again being victimized by the same boy, and he had enough. Halligan said he would go the school and speak to the administrators. No, said Ryan, other kids' parents have done that and nothing really changed. Halligan said he would go directly to the bully's parents. His son begged him not to, as that would only make things worse.
That Christmas, Ryan asked for kick boxing videos and equipment. He said they would prepare him if he ever needed to stand up for himself. Seeing an opportunity for Ryan to improve his confidence and physical conditioning, his parents agreed and Ryan and his Dad spent hours at night working out to those videos. They even joked that it was just like one of their favorite movies, The Karate Kid. Eventually, an altercation between Ryan and the bully did occur, and Ryan seemed proud he had held his own in the skirmish and stood up for himself.
The following summer, Ryan spent long hours on the computer, on instant messaging and various online sites. Concerned about how he was spending his time, his parents questioned him, but Ryan told his parents not to worry, as that was just how he and his friends kept in close touch over the summer. It was later learned that Ryan had formed an online friendship with a girl from his school, who he was expressing interest in as more than a friend. She appeared to be reciprocating.
"There is no greater human pain than losing a child," said Halligan. "We never found a note, even though we tore the house apart looking for one. Turns out that leaving a note is a myth, as most do not leave one." However, in the process of scouring through their son's possessions, they did find a middle school yearbook, where pictures of the bully and others had angry words written on them. Conversely, on his best friend's photo, Ryan had only drawn a crown.
This development led Halligan to the computer, a log-in to Ryan's AIM account, and some of the answers to the mystery of "why". Yes, he was still being bullied, this time online as part of a rumor regarding his sexual orientation, driven by the same boy that had victimized him since the fifth grade. The girl he was expressing feelings for? Turns out she was pulling a prank by reciprocating, and had told Ryan that it was all a hoax to entertain her friends and that she would never be interested in a boy like him.
Halligan now knows his son suffered from depression, undiagnosed and untreated. "My son died of an illness -- depression -- the bullying was snowball that rolled down the hill and pulled him over the edge." Feelings of inadequacy due to his developmental issues were the root, with the bullying exacerbating the depression exponentially. His message to the students is powerful and straightforward:
- "All of you are loved beyond belief... don't ever take that for granted"
- "One little change, changing a moment, can change someone's life"
- "Don't be a bystander, be an upstander"
- "You can turn an ink blot into a butterfly, a mistake into a lesson learned, the bad into the good"
His message to the parents was more straightforward:
- Parents need to stop looking at their kids' world from their own experiences - their world is not our world.
- Have an agreed-upon adult, other than their parents, that their kids can go to for any reason - "if you were afraid to come to us, where would you go?"
- Get to know their world - especially their online world.
- Technology -- especially social media -- amplifies the pain of bullying.
- Create family accounts, not personal accounts, for mobile phone, e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, etc., with one password known by all family members.
- Educate yourself to the signs of youth depression, and seek professional medical help if any are suspected and / or detected.
Back in the conference room, Halligan is asked how he is able to find, use and reclaim the strength to tell his son's story over and over. "I know that I will check my computer today, and there will be e-mails from some of the kids I spoke to here, " he said. "Some will just say thanks, but others will say that they went up and apologized to someone they have been mean to, or that they will be nicer. It is the feedback from the kids that re-fuels me."
There are other inspirations, of course, that are deeper and more personal. "I want to honor my son's memory, and I feel the need to redeem myself." He says he and his wife frequently "wish we could invent a time machine and go back and do things differently." Among them, and despite Ryan's opposition, he would have gone directly to school administrators. confronted the bully's parents, and he would not subconsciously have validated his son's approach to addressing the bully through physical confrontation.
In the immediate aftermath of his son's death Halligan, who now lives with his wife and children on Long Island, dove head-first into creating an anti-bullying law in Vermont, having discovered no such law existed. With a year, the bill was signed into law, and now 49 out of 50 states have such a law. "The laws are important, but they are not the solution," said Halligan. "We need to connect with our kids, encourage them, and give them the tools."
At the middle school he attended, there is tree plated as a memorial to Ryan Halligan. Beneath it sits a plaque that reads, "Never forget the fragility of adolescence and Ryan Halligan."
For more information and resources on bullying, cyber bullying, youth depression, and teen suicide prevention, visit RyanPatrickHalligan.org.