By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
It’s an oft-used maxim uttered by many children to disarm the insults of their playground tormentors. But is was not enough to spare the life of Ryan Halligan, a 13-year-old Essex Junction resident so emotionally battered by verbal jabs delivered at school and through the computer that he took his own life three years ago.
Now Ryan’s dad, John Halligan, is dedicating his life to making sure other children don’t suffer his son’s fate. Halligan is touring schools throughout the region recounting his son’s tragic experiences to other kids, while urging parents to become more invested in their children’s lives — at home, at school and in the sometimes dark, anonymous and unregulated depths of cyberspace.
Halligan told his son’s story on Tuesday to a group of Gailer School parents who had gathered at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society meeting house in Middlebury. He described his initial reaction to his son’s death as being one of total shock, but added he quickly learned that Ryan was not the only child to be bullied into deep depression and thoughts of suicide.
“When this first happened, I thought it was like lightning striking,” Halligan said. “I felt shame, stigma, guilt and the ‘coulda’s and shoulda’s.’ Then I met parents who told me, ‘We could’ve been in your shoes. We ended up in the emergency room, instead of the morgue.’”
Ryan Patrick Halligan was born in 1990. His father recalled him as a “gentle, very sensitive soul,” who faced some challenges from the outset. He was quickly diagnosed with some developmental delays affecting his speech and physical coordination. As a result, he did not start speaking until he was two years old. Ryan received special education services during his early elementary school years, but had caught up with his peers by the time he had entered the fourth grade at Hiawatha Elementary School in Essex Junction.
“He still struggled; school was never easy to him,” Halligan said. “But he always showed up with a smile on his face, eager to do his best.”
But his best was apparently not good enough for some of his fellow students, who, beginning in the fifth grade, mercilessly teased Ryan about his “special needs” and his lack of athletic ability.
“There was a certain group of kids that didn’t let this stuff go,” Halligan said, noting one bully in particular whose apparent job was to “point out that (Ryan) wasn’t very good at school.”
Being a sensitive child, Ryan took the teasing hard.
“We had a lot of tearful moments around the dinner table,” Halligan said.
At the outset, the Halligans gave their son some typical advice.
“Just ignore them, and walk away,” Halligan advised Ryan.
But it got so bad that the Halligans put their son in touch with a counselor, who helped Ryan sort out his feelings. By the end of fifth grade, the counselor said he did believed Ryan did not require any more therapy sessions.
And things got a little better at school, until Ryan entered the seventh grade at Albert D. Lawton Middle School, also in Essex Junction.
Halligan recalled one night, soon after classes began, when he walked into his home to find Ryan despondent, resting his head on a table.
“I asked what was going on, and he said, ‘Dad, I hate that school, I never want to go back; I want to be home schooled,’” Halligan said.
Halligan, an IBM employee, told his son that the family wasn’t able to quickly shift gears to offer him home schooling. Instead, Halligan offered to talk to school officials to get the bullies off his back.
“My son said that would only make it worse,” Halligan said.
Ryan came up with a different idea.
“He said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to teach me how to fight,’” Halligan recalled.
At Ryan’s request, the family sent away for a Taebo Kick Boxing instructional tape and equipment. Father and son practiced the Taebo moves together, with Halligan giving Ryan some cautionary advice.
“I said, ‘I don’t ever want to get a call from school saying you’re a bully. But if one of these kids lays a finger on you, you have my permission to wail on him,’” Halligan said.
Ryan would get into a fight with his chief antagonist. He told his dad he got in a few punches before a school administrator stopped the fight.
That fight, Halligan said, seemingly changed the bullying dynamic at school. Ryan claimed his nemesis had stopped bothering him. He even told his parents he wanted to befriend the boy.
“My wife and I decided to give him his space,” Halligan said.
Little did the Halligans know, the bullying had not stopped. It had gotten much worse — so bad that Ryan committed suicide on Oct. 7, 2003, not long after he had entered the eighth grade.
Between waves of grief, the Halligans scoured Ryan’s room for a suicide note, but couldn’t find one.
Still, they were not going to give up easily in their search to learn the events that led to Ryan’s death.
They found their first clue in their son’s seventh grade yearbook. Ryan had scribbled across the pictures of the bully crowd. And he had scribbled so aggressively across the face of his top nemesis that he had torn the paper.
But the most shattering evidence came in the form of stick figure that Ryan had drawn hanging from the flagpole of the school.
“Something had gone very wrong at school,” Halligan said.
In an effort to find out just how wrong, the Halligans turned to the computer that Ryan had spent so many hours using in his bedroom during the summer before he died. The couple had allowed Ryan to keep the computer in his bedroom with the proviso that he not access pornography, communicate anonymously with people, transmit his picture, or maintain a secret identity password for chat rooms. They also insisted that Ryan share his password with the family.
“He stuck to that rule, thank God,” Halligan said.
Not knowing what he’d find, Halligan logged onto America On Line (AOL) using his son’s password. As if by magic, the cathartic denouement to the tragic mystery materialized before his eyes.
Halligan accessed instant messaging files showing conversations that Ryan had had, online, with some of the bullies at school. Using filthy, mean-spirited language, the bullies had spread a false rumor that Ryan was gay, a rumor they also spread through school.
“It was like a feeding frenzy at school; everyone got in on the fun,” Halligan said of the rumor.
The family also uncovered what looked like a budding Internet romance that Ryan had been having with a popular girl at school. But when Ryan returned to school in the fall of 2003, he found the girl had been in cahoots with the bullies and hadn’t meant anything she had said.
“It turns out that on the day he died, my son went up to the girl and said, ‘It’s girls like you that make me want to kill myself,’” Halligan said.
To that end, Ryan had accessed Web sites that informed people how they could “painlessly” kill themselves. Family members also learned that one of Ryan’s acquaintances had goaded him into committing suicide, going so far as to write, “It’s about (expletive) time,” when Ryan announced his intentions to go through with the act.
After confronting those who had tormented his son, Halligan set off on a crusade to make children and parents more aware of the dangers of childhood depression, suicide and cyber-bullying.
He has given presentations at more than 40 schools (primarily in Vermont) during the past two years, with many more on the horizon. Ryan Halligan’s story has also been featured on such programs as ABC’s “Primetime,” and the syndicated show “A Current Affair.”
John Halligan and other like-minded citizens have also lobbied successfully for new anti-bullying and suicide prevention rules for Vermont schools. The new rules define bullying; require school staff to report witnessed acts; enable parents to file written bullying reports to schools; and require schools to compile statistics on bullying and develop strategies to combat the problem. State law also now requires that health curriculum in schools include teaching about the signs of, and responses to, depression and risk of suicide.
Halligan offers parents pointers on how to protect their children from on-line bullies and predators. Those pointers include establishing “contracts” between parents and children, through which children promise to not give out personal information — including passwords — online, keep to a set amount of time on the computer, pledge not to bully others, and check with parents before installing any software that could jeopardize the family’s privacy.
“We have got to come to a realization that (children) are not going to come to us right away with their problems,” Halligan said.
More information on Halligan’s work is available at www.ryanpatrickhalligan.com.