A decade has passed for John Halligan since his 13-year-old son Ryan committed suicide after being subjected to years of cyberbullying and bullying in school. On Wednesday, Halligan spent the morning with eighth grade students from River Dell Middle School and St. Peter's Academy talking about Ryan, the impact of bullying and teen suicide.
"This is a powerful presentation and it's something we hope resonates with students whether it's today, tomorrow, three months or three years from now," middle school principal Richard Freedman said.
The younger Halligan had been bullied by a group of peers from fifth grade through the start of eighth grade at a Vermont middle school due to a learning disability, his lack of athletic ability, an interest in music and drama and a rumor about his sexual orientation.
"All of you are loved beyond belief," Halligan told the packed auditorium of students. "Don't ever believe for a second you don't matter, that no one would miss you. You are loved beyond belief, don't ever take that for granted."
Halligan added that while the bullying was a factor's in Ryan's choice to commit suicide, he believes that his son suffered from an untreated and undiagnosed case of depression that was made worse by the bullying.
Much of Ryan's bullying encounters came to light to the elder Halligan following his death as several AIM conversations were discovered. The summer prior to his death, Ryan was a victim of several instances of cyber bullying, all of which were saved in chat messages.
"This world you grow up is in very different than mine," Halligan said. "It's not about throwing punches but throwing words. When you bully someone, it's not just them, but the entire family you bully. It's like dropping a bomb in the middle of the family, where one person dies and the rest are wounded."
The younger Halligan's death is just one of a dozen youth suicides since 1997 that have been caused as a result of bullying. Among the list of victims over the past decade are Amanda Todd (2012), Jamie Hubley (2011), Jamey Rodemeyer (2011), Tyler Clementi (2010), Phoebe Prince (2010), Megan Meier (2006), Nicola Ann Raphael (2001), Dawn-Marie Wesley (2000) and Kelly Yeomans (1997).
"At the end of the day, you own this," Halligan said. "Nothing will change unless you start it. If you have a friend who bullies another, find a moment, pull them aside and tell them how you fell. It takes a lot of guts to confront a friend, but it is the most powerful thing you can do in your life - to stand up to a friend who bullies another person."
At the time of Ryan's death, Vermont did not not anti-bullying laws on the books. As part of the elder Halligan's period of grief and mourning, he dedicated himself to spearheading the passage of the Vermont Bully Prevention bill and legislation mandating that suicide prevention should be taught in public schools.
New Jersey, which created an anti-bullying law in 2002, was expanded in 2011 to the state's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. The legislation is considered the toughest anti-bullying law in the country and now defines bullying as any action that creates a hostile school environment or infringes on a student’s rights at school.
Halligan urged students who are victims of bullying, depression or considering suicide to reach out to a parent, family friend or teacher. He also called on their fellow peers to ask for help for a friend if need be.