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Father shares ‘Ryan’s Story’ of loss and bullying

On Oct. 7, 2003, in Essex Junction, Vt., 13-year old Ryan Halligan took his own life after being bullied for years by classmates both in person and online.

“My life, my family’s life will never be the same after that day,” his father John Halligan said as he presented “Ryan’s Story” at Northwestern Lehigh Middle School Feb. 19.

Halligan was spreading a message about bullying and suicide prevention from his own experience with tragic loss.

Halligan helped pass the Vermont Bully Prevention Law in 2004, educating students on identifying and responding to bullying, depression and suicide risks in school.

He has also toured over 2,000 schools internationally to share “Ryan’s Story.”

“My intention is not to make you sad this afternoon; my intention is to get you to think differently about bullying,” Halligan said, before introducing Ryan through an emotional video showing happy moments of Ryan’s life.

Halligan said Ryan was diagnosed with speech and language development delays when he was young, needing therapy to catch up to his peers by fourth grade.

Halligan said the bullying began in fifth grade when students began picking on Ryan for having learning difficulties and not being athletic.

At the time, he told Ryan to ignore the harassment.

However, the bully targeted Ryan again in seventh grade.

Ryan asked his father not to report the bullying to the school for fear of making the problem worse, and instead wanted to learn to defend himself.

Halligan noted that Ryan fought the bully, who stopped the harassment and befriended him.

Halligan said that the summer before eighth grade Ryan spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger.

He said that after Ryan’s suicide, looking through his son’s messages revealed the extent of the abuse and bullying Ryan had endured and kept secret from his parents.

The bully had used a personal story of Ryan’s to spread a rumor in person and online that Ryan was gay.

Additionally, Halligan said Ryan was sending friendly messages to a popular girl in the hopes of starting a relationship and ending the rumors.

“I unraveled why my son was on the computer so much all summer,” Halligan said.

However, the girl and her friends were joking, instead copying Ryan’s conversations and further humiliating him.

Halligan said the day before Ryan died, he told the girl, “it’s girls like you that make me want to kill myself.”

Halligan said he was on a business trip when he received a call about Ryan’s suicide.

“I kept asking the question ‘why’,” Halligan said. “I am convinced that there is no greater human pain than a parent losing a child.”

In addition to sharing Ryan’s story, Halligan’s presentation touched on the importance of forgiveness.

He explained how he learned that students were blaming the girl for Ryan’s death until she withdrew from school and was at risk of suicide herself.

Halligan said he visited the girl and absolved her of blame in Ryan’s death.

“As much pain as I felt, the last thing I wanted was for another parent to lose a child this way,” he said, adding that his family have remained in contact with the female student.

“I grew to appreciate that the situation is much more complicated … I believe in the end, my son died of an illness called depression that went undetected,” Halligan said.

“There is no way I can blame this on one person or one event.”

As for the bully, Halligan told students the boy continued spreading rumors for months after his son’s death.

“I wanted to crush this kid,” Halligan said, noting that he initially wanted to beat up the bully.

Halligan instead confronted the boy and his family and asked him to stop the rumors.

Halligan said the bully cried, apologized and agreed to stop, a moment which brought him solace.

“My son is gone forever, but at that moment in time hearing that kid say he was sorry in a heartfelt and sincere way meant a lot to me,” Halligan said.

Halligan told students he holds no grievances against the bully.

“I have no doubt this story will stay with him for the rest of his life,” Halligan said. “I do not wish him any ill.”

“I believe in forgiveness … I held hate and revenge in my heart for two months and it almost killed me.”

With his presentation, Halligan said he wanted every person to understand how much they are worth to their loved ones.

“All of you are loved beyond belief; don’t ever believe for a second that you don’t matter or that nobody would miss you if you were gone,” Halligan said. “People love you more than you could ever understand.”

He urged students to immediately find help if they or somebody they know are being bullied or feel suicidal or depressed.

“Find that adult, that person you trust and tell them, ‘I don’t feel right inside,’ and let them help you. Don’t ever keep that as a secret,” Halligan said.

He also spoke about the far-reaching impact of bullying, saying that “when you bully a person, you are bullying the entire family,” noting that his family continues to deal with the tragedy of Ryan’s death.

Additionally, Halligan asked that students who may be the friends of a bully take the initiative and stop the harassment, noting they would have the most social power to make a change, and that idle bystanders enable bullying to continue.

“All I want you to do is find a private moment, pull your friend aside and let them know how you feel,” he said. “That is one of the most powerful things you can do at your age, stand up to a friend bullying other people. Don’t be a bystander, be an upstander.”

Halligan concluded his presentation by sharing some advice he received from his high school art teacher after she learned of the suicide of a former student, and said it was the best advice he ever received. “She said, ‘you can always turn an ink blot into a butterfly,’” Halligan said.

“You can always turn an ink blot into a butterfly; you can always turn a mistake into a lesson learned.”

Halligan, who also presented at the high school and for parents at an evening session, was brought to the district courtesy of a grant from the Northwestern Lehigh Education Foundation, and school administrators felt the timely messages about bullying, depression and kindness were important for students to hear.

“We decided to have this presentation because of those reasons, to raise awareness and really show the students the different perspectives and impacts of bullying and cyberbullying,” middle school principal Bill Dovico said.

Halligan said he hoped students would leave his presentation willing to make a change of heart, stand up to a bully or apologize for their actions, and that the transformation could be life-changing.

“I’m just looking for one person,” he said in closing.

“If there is one person who takes Ryan’s story to heart and makes a change, then my time will have been well-spent.”

PRESS PHOTOS BY SARIT LASCHINSKYMembers of Northwestern Lehigh Middle School Student Council hold up a welcoming message for John Halligan before his anti-bullying presentation of “Ryan's Story” on Feb. 19 at the middle school.