WOODLAND PARK, NJ – “My intention is not to make you sad,” said John Halligan to an attentive audience of the entire student body and staff at Memorial Middle School. “My intention is to make you think.”
Halligan, a nationally renowned speaker, came to speak to students on Oct. 11 as part of the school district’s anti-bullying prevention program about his son Ryan, who took his own life at age 13 in 2003 after years of bullying from peers. The program was sponsored by the Woodland Park Municipal Alliance Against Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
“Before I begin to tell Ryan’s story, I want first to introduce Ryan to you,” Halligan said, before a video showing short clips and stills of Ryan throughout his life aired.
Ryan had some language delays growing up but by fourth grade, he was caught up. “We thought it was one less thing to worry about,” Halligan said. “But there was one boy and his group that made it a point to pick on Ryan for being a little awkward during sports.”
Things were quiet for a while until December 2002 when Ryan asked his parents to home school him. It was the same group of boys. Halligan wanted to call the school but Ryan begged him not to and asked to be taught how to fight.
After learning karate, Ryan decided to take the bully on. “He finally had enough,” Halligan said.
In the summer of 2003, Ryan was spending most of his time in his room, on the computer all the time, Halligan said. At the time, kids were using AOL instant messaging, much like they do nowadays text messaging.
“We had rules,” Halligan said. “No talking to strangers. No sharing personal information. And no secret passwords.”
The latter would provide Ryan’s family answers to the mystery of why he took his life, as no suicide note was left behind.
A program that Ryan has installed in his computer stored copies of every single chat conversation. Ryan had been chatting with a girl, who had been pretending to like him. At school he had confronted her and she told him, “You’re just a loser,” as her friends laughed. Copies of their conversations were copied and shared around to friends.
In addition to this, chat histories revealed that the boy that had bullied Ryan had also been spreading a rumor that Ryan was gay. Even after Ryan’s death, Halligan learned the boy was saying at school that Ryan was “weak” and that he “couldn’t handle life.”
“I wanted this kid to rot in jail,” Halligan said. However, detectives at the time said there was nothing they could do, as there were no criminal laws that imposed penalties on such behaviors.
So Halligan changed that. He was responsible for the passage of Vermont's Bully Prevention Law - Act 117 and Vermont's Suicide Prevention Law - Act 114.
Did the bullies ever pay? Halligan told the students the story of how he confronted both the girl and the boy involved as well as their families.
The girl, Ashley, was being blamed for Ryan’s suicide and was so upset she was also on suicide watch. “The last thing we wanted was for another family to go through this,” Halligan said, adding how they met with the family and expressed their forgiveness for her actions. Ashley is still in touch with Halligan to this day.
“She’s still tormented,” Halligan said. “She’s still in therapy.”
As for the boy, who is not named, “I wanted to crush this kid,” Halligan said. On his way over to his home, Halligan was stuck at a long light and had time to think. He rang the bell and the bully answered. Halligan asked if his parents were home and was invited in.
“You probably have no idea how much pain you caused Ryan,” Halligan told the boy. After initial denial, the boy broke down into tears, offering apologies for his behavior.
“There’s no time machine. There’s no do-over,” Halligan said. “I just regret that I didn’t do this sooner.”
Halligan said he doesn’t know what happened to the boy, who’d be 27 now. “I’d like to think he’s a good adult now,” he said.
Recalling his high school years, Halligan told students a story about a classmate who committed suicide. His teacher had said to them then, “You can turn an ink blot into a butterfly. You can turn a mistake into a lesson learned.” He said he never forgot that.
“I believe my son died from an illness – depression,” Halligan said, noting suicide is a much more complicated issue and someone does not kill themselves just because someone is mean to them.
Ryan’s family believes that an underlying mental health problem preconditioned Ryan to respond in this extreme way. In addition, they admit they should have been monitoring and limiting Ryan’s computer access as the isolation exacerbated the depression.
At the conclusion of the story, students took a moment to stand and stretch prior to a Q&A session. He noted he would answer any question they had, except for one – how Ryan committed suicide.
During the Q&A, Halligan sent several key messages to the students:
1) A strong suicide prevention message - “You are loved beyond belief. Don’t ever believe that you don’t matter, that no one would miss you if you were gone.”
2) Physical fighting is not the way to solve bullying and that the “Karate Kid” plan was a stupid one.
3) He elaborated on the role of bystanders. “Bully or bystander - you’re guilty either way,” Halligan said. “Bystanders are a big part of the problem. They provide power and permission. If just one of Ryan’s friends would have had the courage to stand up, maybe things would have been different.”
Peer pressure doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It can be positive if you choose it to be. “Caring more about what your friends think than your parents is normal in teen years,” he said. “You own this. They can lecture you until they are blue in the face but you’re in the best position. I beg you – don’t be a bystander, be an upstander.”
4) He challenged the students to apologize to someone they may have bullied. “At least one person will go back after this and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ to someone, and that apology will be life changing,” he concluded.
“If you can’t go to your parents, speak to another adult and tell them you don’t feel good inside and let them help you,” Halligan urged the students. “If you see a friend struggling, get them help.”
Parents and guardians are encouraged to visit www.RyansStory.org where they will find numerous resources and information.