SINCLAIRVILLE - John Halligan lost his 13-year-old son Ryan to suicide on Oct. 7, 2003. Since that time, Halligan has been instrumental in getting legislation to address bullying and mandate suicide prevention education enacted in Vermont and has told his family's story worldwide through radio, television, and print. He has given presentations for students and parents throughout the United States and created a website www.ryansstory.org that contains not only Ryan's story but resources for parents.
He recently appeared at Cassadaga Valley Central School which has instituted the Olweus program as a tool to discourage bullying. His website contains a link to information about the program which emphasizes the role of the bystander to make a difference. The school will be holding Olweus training for parents and community members on Tuesday Oct. 9 and Thursday Oct. 11 from 6-8 p.m.
During the school day Halligan spoke to assembled students. In the evening, his presentation was geared for parents and adults in the community.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane R. Chodan
John Halligan speaks to an audience at Cassadaga Valley Central School, explaining about his son Ryan’s suicide and offering suggestions for adults.
"I want to give you information that I wish my wife and I had before Ryan passed away," Halligan said.
By viewing a copy of a video interview, and Halligan's recollections of his son sprinkled throughout the rest of the presentation, a portrait of Ryan and his parents emerged.
Ryan struggled academically and was bullied by some students in elementary school. The Halligans helped their son by discussing coping strategies. Ryan also had sessions with a therapist. Things seemed to go better until in seventh grade Ryan became very emotional and announced, "I hate the school." He asked to be homeschooled or move.
Stop the bullying
WHAT: Olweus Bullying Prevention Training
FOR WHOM: Parents and community members of Cassadaga Valley Central School District
WHEN: Tuesday Oct. 9 and Thursday Oct. 11 at 6-8 p.m. Must attend both sessions
CONTACT: Principal Rich Seigel or counselor Heather Nocero at 962-8581 to confirm attendance.
Halligan's instinct was to go to school personnel, but Ryan told him that would only make things worse. At Ryan's request, Halligan instead helped him learn to defend himself. Ryan stood up to the ringleader and seemed more confident afterward. In a surprising development, the bully and Ryan became friends.
"It was a set up," said Halligan who learned of the sequence of events by logging into his son's account after Ryan's funeral.
"My heart started to break," he added. "... There was nasty stuff."
The bully spread rumors through the Internet that Ryan was gay. Ryan then approached a popular girl and spent time instant messaging her. This produced another betrayal. She shared the communications with her friends, thinking it was fun to make Ryan believe she liked him.
Halligan believes he "underestimated the effect of emotional bullying." He regrets that Ryan had no other 'go to' adult in his life besides his mother and father.
Remembering his own teen years Halligan said, "We didn't want to go to our parents about everything either." Halligan felt that Ryan just needed a 'pep talk.'
Halligan warned parents about wrist bands. "I don't mean the thin plastic ones. Ryan wore thick leather ones. We thought it was a fashion statement." In reality, Ryan had been cutting himself in attempt to deal with his emotional pain.
Halligan wishes he had asked Ryan if he was suicidal. He encourages parents who suspect depression to step up and ask the question in a non-judgmental manner. If the answer is positive, the parents need to take action.
"Don't mess with this stuff," he said. He explained that emergency rooms can deal with the situation, stabilize the person, and then a plan can be made to address the depression.
Halligan said bullying and cyber bullying have merged. "This is a different world," he warned, pointing out that a fight in the boys' bathroom which in his youth may have been witnessed by one or two people can now be posted on YouTube. He picked out one such fight which had 982,000 hits. Such activity can produce an overwhelming sense of hopelessness in the victim.
There have been rapid changes in the technology. In Ryan's time, there was no Facebook. Options keep expanding. Many of the current generation have cell phones that also allow access to the Internet and some children are connected constantly.
A sheet of Halligan's suggestions for how parents should deal with technology was available for the audience. This sheet is also available on his website. Overall, Halligan counseled action by parents.
"We better not be bystanders ourselves," he said. While invading the privacy of a youngster might give some parents pause, most parents are paying for the technology. Parents can and should set rules for its usage.
Halligan advised having the child show the parent where he or she is going on the Internet. The parent should open accounts in those places, having the child guide the adult through the process. The child should share all user accounts and passwords with the parent. There is software available that generates reports of the child's activity.
The parent should scrutinize the accounts, the information the child posts, and the friend list on the account. Halligan noted that the Children's Online Protection Act of 1998 requires a letter of consent or an application process to create certain accounts. Parents will sometimes allow children on the accounts or help them defeat the regulation.
"I don't think this is OK. The younger crowd doesn't have the maturity needed," he said. He also pointed out that teaching a child to lie sets a bad example.
Halligan's presentation was not about blame. His son had undiagnosed depression. "You don't kill yourself because one person is mean," he said. He feels most kids are good, but they get caught in a "herd mentality." He expressed compassion for a youngster to whom Ryan expressed suicidal thoughts. The boy feels enormous guilt that he didn't tell someone.
"My God, the boy was just 13. He made an error in judgment," he said.
Halligan feels the school can help, but can't be expected to do it all.
"Hey don't throw this to the school. It's not just a school problem," he said. "We have to develop a better strategy for dealing with this."
After the presentation, Halligan took questions and comments. He then stayed to speak to members of the audience who wished to meet him. Many shook his hand. Others hugged him. One teenager had a letter for him.
Asked the one thing he would like people to do, he said to make sure a child has a 'go to' adult in his or her life.
Asked if presentations ever get easier, Halligan smiled and said yes. He has heard from many youngsters who have gotten help for depression or who have confided to an adult that a student expressed suicidal tendencies. He knows his presentations make a difference.
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