Tears streamed down the faces of many students and faculty members at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School last month as John Halligan told the tragic story of his son Ryan, who took his own life at age 13 in 2003 after being bullied.
According to a 2016 survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than one out of every five students reports being bullied at school. Not every student speaks up, however.
In an effort to combat bullying and raise awareness for the negative effects it has on students, the high school recently welcomed Halligan to share his presentation, “Ryan’s Story.”
“All of you are loved beyond belief,” Halligan told the students. “Trust me on this one. Don’t ever believe for a second that you don’t matter, or that no one would miss you if you were gone. … I can guarantee you there are people in your lives that care about you and love you more than you’ll ever truly understand.”
Halligan, a former employee for IBM, quit his job in 2009 to hit the road full-time to share the story of his son, who was ridiculed by his peers online and at school. He presented his story to students in grades six through 12 in three separate assemblies on Dec. 14 and 15, and gave a special presentation for parents, where he taught them the mistakes he made as a parent and offered them advice about how to create a dialogue with their children.
Halligan was away on a business trip in Rochester for IBM when his cell phone rang at 6 a.m. on Oct. 7, 2003. “It was my wife, Kelly, crying hysterically, ‘John you need to come home. You need to come home,’” he recalled. “’Our son is dead. Ryan killed himself.’” Halligan declined to talk about how Ryan died, but was open about many of the detailed events that led to his suicide.
Ryan was born on Dec. 18, 1989, and Halligan said that he exhibited some learning issues by age 2. The Halligan family had moved from Poughkeepsie to Essex Junction, Vt., after IBM offered John a new position. Ryan had an older sister, Megan, who was in 12th grade at the time of his death and discovered his body, and a younger brother, Connor.
By fourth grade, Ryan had caught up with the rest of his classmates, but still struggled academically, however. In fifth grade, a boy in his class and his other friends began to bully him for his faults. Halligan said there were many nights at the kitchen table when he talked his son through the situation.
After Ryan confronted the bully, Halligan said, they eventually became friends. Everything went smoothly until December 2002, when Ryan once again had another issue with the bully.
Halligan said he began to notice Ryan spending a lot of time on the computer in the summer of 2003, chatting away on AOL Instant Messenger. After Ryan’s death, Halligan would later find out through saved conversations that the bully started a rumor that his son was gay. In addition, a girl in his class feigned romantic feelings for him as a joke with her friends. The girl copied and pasted personal information Ryan revealed to her and shared it with all of her friends.
He noted that Ryan likely suffered from depression and it went undetected. He added that the issues with his classmates only worsened his condition.
At the end of the presentation, Halligan fielded questions from students, which ranged from what he thought Ryan would have grown up to be to his favorite memories of his son.
Fighting back against bullying
At the time of Ryan’s death, there were laws in Vermont that school districts followed to combat sexual harassment, hazing and other issues, but nothing for bullying. In the month’s following the loss of his son, Halligan worked on the Vermont Bullying Prevention Bill, which established bullying prevention procedures for schools.
New York has a similar bill, the Dignity for All Students Act, which seeks to provide students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying.
Halligan said that after Ryan’s death, he eventually confronted the girl who was bullying his son online, and she broke down crying and apologized. He said he forgave her because he believed she did not expect her actions to have such dire consequences.
He added that he also heard through parents of Ryan’s friends that the boy bully continued to taunt Ryan after his death. Halligan said he drove to the bully’s house and met with him and his parents. After the boy initially denied the claims, he too eventually broke down in tears. The Halligans later moved to Farmingdale, in hopes to give their youngest son, Connor, now 20, an easier upbringing.
“I had hate and revenge in my heart for two months,” Halligan said, “and it nearly killed me.” Halligan turned his hate and the tragedy into a lesson, and first told Ryan’s story to an audience in Vermont in 2005 when a school district invited him. He said a girl at the assembly emailed him and said she was inspired to apologize to someone she bullied at school. Shortly after, other districts reached out to him, and he made an appearance on “Primetime with Diane Sawyer,” which led to more school invites.
Halligan said his presentation is aimed at three different people: those who are being bullied and are suicidal, those who have been bullies themselves, and the bystanders, those who either ignore bullying situations or laugh along.
“I’ve been at this long enough to know that at least one of you — at least one person in this room — is gonna take this story to heart, walk out of here, go up to somebody, and simply say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way I treated you,’” Halligan said. “That apology, that real, heart-felt apology will be life-changing.”
East Rockaway Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said the district promotes many programs focused on preaching respect among students. “We are thankful to have a community that embraces our character-building programs and models the positive behavior we are seeking to instill in our students,” Ruiz said. “The district employs a zero-tolerance policy with bullying and any incident is investigated immediately.”
Ryan’s Story has also been shared in the Lynbrook School District, which Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak said is part of a culture created to deter bullying.
“It is a constant mission of the schools in the district to thwart negative bullying behavior,” Burak said. “We will continue to pursue this mission until we can eradicate the mean-spiritedness too often exhibited by some.”