April 19, 2013 10:20:13 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
The words remain fresh and painful in John Halligan's mind:
"I hate that school, I hate that school. I never want to go back there again. Can you home-school me? Can we move?"
On Thursday night, before an audience of parents, teachers and concerned residents at MUW's Nissan Auditorium, John Halligan recalled the night his 13-year-old son sat with his head in his hands at the kitchen table, begging his father not to send him back to a school where he was tormented by bullies.
Less than a year later, Ryan Halligan committed suicide.
Now his father is on a mission to educate parents and students about the dangers of bullying, cyber-bullying and teen depression.
Ryan died on Oct. 7, 2003. What began as bullying in the fifth grade led to three years of torment for the child until he took his own life in his eighth-grade year.
Halligan described Ryan as a little boy who loved to tell jokes and play sports. Because he was slow to learn to speak Ryan was enrolled in a special education program at an early age but worked his way out of the program by fourth grade. Halligan said he felt a sense of relief when Ryan no longer needed the program, because his older child, Megan, was having a difficult time in middle school.
"Middle school for Megan was, quite frankly, a bit of an emotional roller coaster nightmare. We had ups, we had downs and the whole experience just started to remind me how difficult those school years could be. And I remember how mean (kids) could be to each other and I remembered how mean they could be to those kids who needed extra help. For my son's sake, I was relieved that as we were heading toward the difficult middle school years that was one less thing we would have to worry about," he said.
"But it didn't work out the way we hoped. For my son, the bullying started up around fifth grade."
Halligan said one particular boy in Ryan's class began to bully the child because he struggled academically and was not as athletic as his counterparts.
"In this time frame, he wasn't coming with a bruised arm or a black eye or anything like that. It was just words."
Halligan said he and his wife told their son to ignore the bully and hoped the problem would go away. When Ryan was still the target of the bully's attention two years later in seventh grade, the boy begged his father to teach him how to fight in what Halligan called a "karate kid moment."
One day after school, Ryan approached the bully and the two fought.
"He had the big fight. All of a sudden things got better."
Toward the end of his seventh grade year, in a move that shocked his parents, Ryan befriended the bully.
"My wife and I agonized over this but we thought, 'You know, he is of an age where he can make his own decisions and if it turns out to be a mistake, we'll be there to help him. So we backed off."
His father then told the crowd the information he only learned after his son's death. One day, Ryan told one of his usual jokes to the bully-turned-friend. The other boy took the joke as an indication that Ryan was gay and began to spread rumors around the school and online.
"My son in dealing with this, dealt with it in a very unhealthy way. He spent a lot of time on his computer, behind a closed bedroom door throughout that summer trying to deal with the rumor," Halligan said.
Halligan said Ryan thought if he could get a girlfriend the bully would stop spreading rumors that he was gay. Ryan spent the summer, on his instant messenger account, chatting with a girl from school who he thought liked him. When his eighth-grade year began and he approached the girl, she told Ryan that she was only pretending to like him as a joke.
"Ryan, you're just a loser. I don't want anything to do with you," the girl said.
The girl had copied and pasted all of their IM conversations and shared them with her friends. On the day of his death, Ryan approached the girl and said "It's girls like you who make me want to kill myself."
Speaking to a room filled mostly with women, John then said the words that are every parent's nightmare.
"On October 7, 2003 when the family was fast asleep and I was away on a business trip, my son killed himself."
"Lesson learned. As Ryan's dad, I had completely underestimated the effects of emotional-type bullying. I made the mistake of looking at my son's situation and comparing my own childhood experience."
It's a different world today, he realized too late.
"We didn't have the Internet to go home to and find another way to torment each other. This world that our children are growing up in is very different than the one we grew up in and I failed to understand it and I failed to appreciate that. Turns out, this isn't about throwing punches anymore. It's about throwing words."
In addition to the girl from school, Ryan also spent a lot of time messaging with a former neighbor. The boy had moved away several years before but he and Ryan kept in contact online and developed a friendship. Halligan said instead of the friend becoming a positive influence, the boy encouraged Ryan's spiraling depression and the two commiserated on how difficult it was to not be one of the "popular kids." The boys began looking up ways to kill themselves.
Ryan also began cutting his wrists but covered the cuts with bracelets. His parents did not learn of the cutting until after his death.
Two weeks before Ryan died, he messaged his online friend, "Tonight's the night. I think I'm going to do it." The former neighbor responded: "It's about time."
And he did.
A secret world
After his son's death, Halligan said he logged into Ryan's instant messenger account and soon students began telling him of a world he knew nothing about, the online world of his son.
Halligan discovered countless conversations on Ryan's computer and as he pored over them he realized the mistakes he and his wife made about the Internet.
While they had established a "no secret passwords" rule, they did not monitor Ryan's computer activity. Almost pleading with the audience, Halligan encouraged parents to get involved and know what their children are doing online and on their cell phones. He noted that since seventh-graders are immature, any type of behavior carried out in person will also translate online.
"It shouldn't surprise you that if you give (kids) access to the Internet, they're going to be socially awkward and mean."
Every new gadget, every new application, has created another opportunity for somebody to hide behind a screen and text something that they would likely not say in person. Because of this opportunity, there is so much emotional abuse going on today around young people that it has reached epidemic level. It's out of control.
Halligan had toured the country telling the story of his son and said after one speech, a child approached him and said she would rather be in a physical altercation than be bullied.
"I can go to adults and show them my black eye. But it's almost impossible to show them my bruised heart," the child told him.
Halligan's speech was sponsored by the Junior Auxiliary of Columbus. He spoke at Immanuel and Heritage on Thursday and will speak to New Hope and Columbus Middle School today.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.