This site is dedicated to the memory of our son and for all children suffering from the pain of being bullied and perhaps feeling suicidal too. We pray this site will encourage them to seek help and not lose hope. We invite schools to let us share his story to inspire change in the hearts and minds of bullies and bystanders.
- John and Kelly Halligan, Ryan’s parents
October 7, 2003, will always be the day that divides our life. Before that day, our son Ryan was alive. A sweet, gentle and lanky thirteen-year-old fumbling his way through early adolescence and trying to establish his place in the often confusing and challenging social world of middle school. After that day he would be gone forever, death by suicide. Some might call it bullycide, but we don’t like that term for reasons explained later. We prefer just to describe it as a huge hole left in our hearts.
Our son Ryan was a sweet, gentle and very sensitive soul. He was born in Poughkeepsie, NY just a week before Christmas. That Christmas, Ryan was the best present of all. As he grew, his loving way made it irresistible to hug him and feel him hug you back. Ryan had the magic ability to bring a smile to anyone that looked his way. As he grew, he developed an incredible sense of humor too. And when we moved into new neighborhoods twice during his life, kids quickly gravitated to his warmth and friendliness.
But there were early concerns about Ryan’s speech, language, and motor skills development as he neared kindergarten. Ryan received special education services from pre-school through the fourth grade. We will always be grateful for the entire staff at Hiawatha Elementary School in Essex Junction Vermont for being so wonderful and caring for our son. The special education team there fell in love with him and his drive to do his best every day. By the time he reached the fifth grade, he was assessed to be on grade and no longer needing special education services. However, he did become more aware that he was still not academically strong. This lack of academic strength began to bother him more deeply as he headed into middle school. He had to work much harder at homework, re-reading assignments several times to comprehend the material. He was hard on himself, no matter how much we tried to lessen the academic pressure and focus his awareness of his other strengths.
We often told Ryan that there are all kinds of intelligence, for instance: academic, music, physical and social intelligence. We always felt his strength was social intelligence- that his warm, sweet, caring and sensitive personality would take him far in life because people liked being with him. One of the best compliments we ever received about Ryan was from a parent who said they loved having him over and wanted his sweetness to rub off onto their child.
It was in the fifth grade that we began to encounter the bullying problem. A kid and his friends picked up on Ryan’s academic weaknesses and his poor physical coordination. But since he was not physically bullied by these boys, only by words, we advised him just to ignore them, walk away and remember that he had friends to count on. We even went so far as to get him a therapist to further help him develop coping skills and to boost his self-esteem during this school year. By the end of fifth grade he seemed fine and so, based on the therapist’s advice, we stopped the sessions. That would later prove to be a huge mistake.
Ryan’s middle school was Albert D. Lawton (ADL) in Essex Junction, Vermont with grades 6 through 8 in the same building. It was a bit of a scary transition for Ryan coming in as a young 6th grader into a building with some pretty older looking 8th graders lurking through the hallways. As with his early school years, Ryan still struggled to make average grades. The school was still not easy for him, and he often brought up the concern of being put back in “sped” (special ed.)
Sure enough, the bullying problem resurfaced on and off during his first middle school year, but never to the point that gave us great concern. Again, we had the traditional adult belief that this was just kids being kids, a part of growing up that encountering mean kids in middle school was just inevitable. But the situation got much worse for him during the 7th grade.
In December 2002, the bullying problem surfaced again to a significant level. There was an evening that month when he just had a meltdown at a very tearful session at the kitchen table. We thought 7th grade was going fine but discovered he was bottling up a lot of bad experiences during the first few months. Again, it was the same kid and his friends that bullied him on and off since the 5th grade. They were tormenting him again, and he said he hated going to school, that he never wanted to go back there. He asked that night if we could move or home school him.
We were torn between wanting to be his bodyguard all day and feeling he needed to learn how to manage the situation as a part of growing up. We sat at the kitchen table discussing our options that evening. We explained that moving in the middle of the winter was not a good time, and homeschooling was not an option because Mom worked part-time. I said, “That’s it, Ryan. I had enough. Let’s take it to the principal and have him put a stop to it once and for all.” To that, Ryan exclaimed, “No dad, please don’t do that. They will only make it worse. I see it happen all the time.” Instead, Ryan asked that we help him learn how to fight so he can “beat the heck" out of this kid if he or his 8th-grade friends tried to jump him.
How we wish we could now turn back the clock and instead looked into why Ryan did not trust his school administration to address the problem in the first place. But at that moment in time, I immediately thought of the movie “The Karate Kid” and said so to Ryan. We laughed and agreed that was exactly what was needed for this situation. But instead of karate, Ryan was much more interested in Billy Blank’s Taebo Kick Boxing program which often aired as a commercial in this time frame. He asked that we get him this program along with the punching bag and boxing gloves for Christmas.
After a short discussion, we bought Ryan the “Taebo” kickboxing training kit for Christmas that year. All through the month of January and into February, Ryan and I got down to business. After dinner every evening we did this exercise program together. These are some of my favorite memories of time spent with Ryan. We talked about a lot of things during these workouts including strategies in dealing with the bully and his friends. I was quite proud of him, seeing his self-confidence build. It felt like the "Karate Kid" movie, getting him ready for the big match. But I reminded Ryan that he was never to start a fight with this kid, but he certainly had my permission to “whale on him” the moment he laid a hand on Ryan.
Sure enough, we got a call from the assistant principal after a school day in February 2003. He just broke up a fight between Ryan and the bully at the nearby Maple Street Park in our village. He said Ryan was ok but wanted us to be aware. We were very grateful for his intervention. When we found Ryan walking home, he was both scared and elated. He was shaking but said he got a few good punches in and felt good he was able to stand up to the bully. He said, “I got a few good punches in before Mr. Emory got there. That kid probably won’t mess with me anymore.” We were all feeling pretty relieved that day for Ryan; for being able to stand his ground and seemingly make it through a typical teenage rite of passage.
As the months followed, he seemed to be doing great. He was still struggling academically, but that was always the case for Ryan since kindergarten. He acted out like a typical middle school age kid – moody at times but also very sweet and funny most of the time. The "usual" ups and downs were what we observed. And we were always there for him, always reminding him how much we loved him. For the rest of 7th grade, We kept checking in with Ryan and asking him if that kid was still bothering him. His answer was always the same that since that fight, the bully had left him alone. I often thought to myself, “This plan worked perfectly!”
One day Ryan’s answer surprised us. He said he was now friends with the kid. We were not happy with this news. We warned him to watch his back since this kid was his nemesis for so long. We discouraged the friendship but decided to back off, feeling he was of age to make decisions like this and potentially have to learn from a misjudgment. How we wish we instead ended the so-called friendship right from the start.
Ryan’s young teen life included swimming, camping, skateboarding, biking, snowboarding, playing computer games and instant messaging. A typical array of “healthy” and “normal” teen activities … or so it seemed. My son loved being on-line, staying connected with his friends after the school day and throughout the summer. But during the summer of 2003, a greater deal of time was spent on-line, mainly instant messaging. I was concerned and felt compelled to remind him of our internet safety rules.
- No IMing/chatting with strangers
- No giving any personal information (name/address/phone) to strangers
- No sending pictures to strangers
- No secret passwords
Our last rule was a safety one. I told my two older children that they had to use the password I gave them for any accounts they signed up. I promised I would not read personal messages or spy on them but, “God forbid you don’t follow the first few rules, and you just disappear one day, I will want instant access to all of your activities on-line.” Never in a million years did I imagine this rule would someday end up becoming the key to unlocking the mystery of why my son took his life.
A few days after his funeral I logged on to his AOL IM account because that was the one place he spent most of his time during the last few months. I logged on to see if there were any clues to his final action. It was in that safe world of being somewhat anonymous that several of his classmates told me of the bullying and cyberbullying that took place during the months that led up to his suicide. The boy that had bullied him since 5th grade and briefly befriended Ryan after the brawl was the main culprit. My son, the comedian, told his new friend something embarrassing and funny that happened once during a medical exam. The so-called new friend (bully) ran with the story and spread a rumor that Ryan had something done to him and therefore Ryan must be gay. The rumor and taunting continued beyond that school day well into the night and during the summer of 2003. During the summer, my son approached a girl from his school on-line and worked on establishing a relationship with her; I’m sure as a surefire way to squash the “gay” rumor before everyone returned to school in the fall. Unfortunately, in this time-frame and still even today to some degree, it was horrifying to a middle schooler to be called gay.
When the 8th grade school year started up again, Ryan approached his new girlfriend in person. I’m sure he was never prepared to handle what happened next. In front of her friends, she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she was only joking around with him on-line. He found out that she and her friends thought it would be funny to make him believe she liked him and to get him to share a lot of personal, embarrassing stuff. She then copied and pasted their private IM exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.
Now certainly our son was not the first boy in history to be bullied and have his heart crushed by rejection. But when I discovered a folder filled with IM exchanges throughout the summer and further interviewed his classmates, I realized that technology was being utilized as weapons far more effective and reaching than the simple ones we had as kids. Passing handwritten notes or a "slam" book has since been replaced with on-line tools such as IM, websites, blogs, social media, anonymous posting applications, smartphones, etc. The list keeps growing with the invention of every new gadget and application.
It is painful to be bullied and humiliated in front of a few kids. It is painful to feel rejection and have your heart crushed by a girl. But it has to be an entirely different experience of pain than a generation ago when these hurts and humiliation are witnessed by far larger, online adolescent audience. I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before computers and the internet. I think many of us would not have had the resiliency and stamina to sustain such a nuclear level attack on our feelings and reputation as a young teen in the midst of rapid physical, social and emotional changes. I believe technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt to levels that will probably result in a rise in teen suicide rates until we figure out how to address it with a stronger standard of coping skills. Recent statistics indicate that indeed adolescent mental health problems are on the rise. Many experts tie it to the dramatic increase use of smartphone use by teenagers over the past several years. Some describe it as being hyperconnected to an unhealthy level. Try taking a smart phone away from a teenager, and you will often quickly discover an addiction problem.
We want to be very clear; we don’t blame Ryan’s death on one single person or one single event. In the end, Ryan was either suffering from depression or lacked the coping skills to deal with the on-line bullying and the rejection by the girl. Suicide is not a reasonable response to these situations and we must be very careful not to normalize this reaction in the minds of teenagers by using the term “bullycide.” Bullycide invokes the false notion that it is all the bully’s fault for the suicidal feelings. The term is a very dangerous oversimplification unfortunately used too often by the media, and some educators and parents.
Over the years, we have encountered so many parents who have lost a child to suicide. The one common trait we hear over and over again when it comes to describing the child was that they were very sensitive, quite frankly, overly sensitive. That would describe Ryan. So for Ryan, the issues and events mentioned above either triggered a deep depression or due to the inability to cope with the embarrassment and pain resulting in his final tragic action. In our opinion, in addition to instituting bullying prevention in our schools, the focus should also include adolescent mental health and coping skills when it comes to facing bullying, especially on-line.
In the final analysis, we feel that Ryan's middle school’s social media environment was toxic, like for so many young people across this country. For too long, we have let kids and adults bully others as a rite of passage into adulthood, but the internet has taken this to a whole new dangerous level. However, we place accountable for this tragedy, first and foremost, on ourselves as his parents. We did not go into the school at the appropriate time and ask for help. As parents, we also failed to assess adequately and maintain an emotionally healthy school social environment for our son while he was alive. Clearly, this was not solely the schools’ responsibility. It should have been an active team effort initiated by us based in Ryan's upsetness and supported by them to address it. We also should have openly discussed the emerging technology and the potential social pitfalls along with how to protect oneself and cope emotionally in this new environment. Like so many parents of our generation, we thought this would just be a phase, a part of growing up. But an appropriate level of accountability and responsibility must also be shared by others here too, namely the bullies and the bystanders, their parents along with school administration and staff. Regardless of the cause of the suicide, we should remain focused on the total environment and the critical role we all play in raising happy and healthy children.
So something had to happen in response to this tragedy. It had to be something substantial and sustained, not just a brief sympathetic response. We decided to take all this intense pain and channel it into productive areas to help other children avoid the same fate as our son. You’ll learn at this website (RyansStory.org) about the bully prevention law we spearheaded in Vermont that holds schools accountable for preventing and responding to bullying. We've done several national and local news media interviews to spread this story over the past several years. I have also decided to dedicate the rest of my life to visit as many schools as possible to share Ryan's story and the powerful healing messages of forgiveness and unconditional love. Imparted too is the plea for the bystanders to become upstanders to those who bully with very practical advice on how to go about it.
Nothing can ever bring back our Ryan. Nothing will ever heal our broken hearts. But we hope by sharing the personal details of our tremendous loss with students and their parents; another family will have been spared a lifelong sentence to this kind of pain.
Anti Bullying / Bullying Prevention / Cyberbullying Prevention / Suicide Prevention / Middle School / High School Student Assembly Presentation Program / RyansStory
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