WINTER PARK – John Halligan knows a lot about bullying, but it isn’t from being a bully himself, or from having been the victim of one.
Instead, his torturous journey from grieving parent to advocate for anti-bullying laws happened in a very different way: as the father of a child who took his own life after years of bullying and harassment from fellow students.
Halligan lost his son Ryan to suicide at age 13 while the boy was a student at a middle school in Vermont. He had been ridiculed and humiliated by classmates until it pushed him over the edge.
Today, Halligan tours the country, speaking out about the dangers of bullying and, now through the Internet, Cyberbullying – a term he doesn’t even accept.
“I don’t like the term too much, because the media and everyone else is saying this is something new,” he said. “I don’t think this is new at all. It’s just called meanness.”
Halligan recently spoke about the loss of his son and the problem of bullying during a program at the St. Peter and Paul Church on Old Howell Branch Road in Winter Park. His visit was sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center, based in Maitland, which is hoping to put a spotlight on just how deadly bullying can become. The program was funded in part by the Community Development Funds of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, as part of the “Stand Up to Bullying” campaign.
Halligan said he knows all too well that what can start out as teasing can snowball into something far worse.
“As Ryan’s dad, I had totally underestimated the impact of emotional bullying,” he said. “When it happened, Ryan wanted me to teach him how to fight and defend himself. It turned out this wasn’t about throwing a punch, but throwing words.”
Halligan said classmates started picking on Ryan in the fifth grade, and his self-esteem began falling. Ryan’s parents responded by getting him to see a school counselor, but it didn’t help. The bullying continued, right into seventh grade. By then, Ryan was so miserable that he asked his parents to pull him out altogether and home school him instead.
He also refused to take part in any kind of school mediation program with the principal, insisting that would only make the situation worse.’
Halligan said in retrospect, he now realizes that his son was right. Bringing a bully and a victim together with the principal for a conflict resolution session doesn’t solve anything, he said.
“The bully is sitting there saying, ‘Hah, now I know what got to you,’ “ he said. “Bullying has nothing to do with conflict. What is bullying? It’s a repeated act intended to intimidate, humiliate or ridicule. The methods could be physical, emotional or relational. It exploits an imbalance of power that this person has figured out, and they’re going to take advantage of it.”
Although Ryan was sometimes bullied physically, the bulk of it was emotional abuse – made worse through the Internet and emails, he said. Someone at the school spread a rumor that Ryan was gay, and he started getting crude, homophobic emails – emails that he never told his parents about.
At the same time, Ryan developed a crush on a girl who began telling him how much she liked him, too. But it turned out to be a cruel hoax: the girl finally admitted it was all a big joke. Devastated, Ryan hung himself in the bathroom of his home.
“I blew it on this one,” Halligan said. “On the day my son died, the first thing we did was look for the suicide note. We tore the room apart, but we never did find the note. Then I thought maybe his computer gave us a clue.”
While searching through Ryan’s online accounts, “I learned all about the rumor that my son was gay,” Halligan said. “I unraveled why my son was on the computer so much that summer. He was trying to deal with this gay rumor.”
What he didn’t realize at the time, Halligan said, is that Ryan’s circle of friends had expanded dramatically in the age of the Internet, and not in a good way.
“In today’s world of parenting, the circle of friends you see at the kitchen table is not the same circle of friends you see in cyberspace,’ he said. “Parents, you’ve got to try to pay attention to this world.”
Halligan has tried to learn from this traumatic experience. He convinced state lawmakers in Vermont to pass a new anti-bullying law and is encouraging other states to do the same. His path to becoming an anti-bullying activist started when one local school held a special day urging students to respect one another.
“I was first asked to speak about this at a school in Vermont for Respect Day,” he said. “I reluctantly agreed, and as I hung up, I stressed out for two weeks.”
Finally, on the day he was scheduled to speak, “I got up on stage and told my son’s life story from start to finish. As I did, I sensed that kids were connecting to the story, either as a victim, as a bully, or as a bystander.”
School officials later asked Halligan if he had a speaking program for parents as well – something he hadn’t thought about before then. That’s when he began thinking about speaking to other parents about what they could do to stop their own children from becoming bullying victims – and how it’s not okay for anyone, students, parents or school officials alike, to be a bystander when someone else is being harassed.
“We’ve got to instill in our kids that it’s not okay to be a bystander,” he said. “Let’s not blame it on the kids. This is a problem that goes around all of us. This problem is now epidemic.”
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