Bullied to Death at Age 13: A Father's Response to Tragedy
John and Kelly Halligan lost their thirteen year old son, Ryan, to suicide on October 7, 2003. At the time of his death, Ryan was a middle school student in Essex Junction, Vermont. It was revealed in much greater detail after Ryan’s death that he had been ridiculed and humiliated by peers at school as well as on-line.
In memory of his son, John spearheaded the Vermont Bully Prevention bill which was signed into law (ACT117) in May 2004 only a few months after Ryan’s death. He also successfully led the passage of the law pertaining to mandatory suicide prevention education in public schools (ACT 114) in April 2006.
In light of my focused blog posts this week on the topic of bullying I contacted John to ask him a few questions about the topic. It is one thing to research a topic and quite another to personally experience the tragedy of this injustice.
MC: From a parent or a youth leader’s point of view, what is the difference between ordinary joking between students (kids will be kids) and bullying?
JH: I think you are referring to teasing versus bullying. Teasing is basically done with permission. There is not an imbalance of power in the exchange. We both know each other very well and know we both are having a little fun with the give and take. People should not “tease” people they don’t know well or are not close friends. You have no idea if what you are saying or doing is OK. Sure you can take the risk, but just realize you are taking a risk when you “tease” someone.
MC: Many youth leaders may be concerned about damaging the self-esteem of a student by intervening. Can you speak to that fear?
JH: I don’t see this as a high potential. Most people would appreciate someone putting the bully in their place.
MC: Hindsight being 20/20, what warning signs could you point to that might identify an at-risk child?
JH: These are the warning signs I have listed on my son’s website regarding suicide prevention plus some action steps for parents and teens.
Five Warning Signs for Depression in Teens:
1. Feelings of sadness or hopelessness often accompanied by anxiety
2. Declining school performance
3. Loss of pleasure/interest in social and sports activities
4. Sleeping too little or too much
5. Changes in weight or appetite
Three Steps Parents Can Take:
1. Get your child help (medical or mental health professional).
2. Support your child (listen, avoid undue criticism, remain connected).
3. Become informed (library, local support group, Internet).
Four Steps Teens Can Take:
1. Take your friend’s actions seriously.
2. Encourage your friend to seek professional help and accompany him/her if necessary.
3. Talk to an adult you trust. Don’t be alone in helping your friend.
4. Tell Someone. Tell Anyone.
MC: The blog audience is mostly parents and youth leaders. If you could say one thing to them, what would it be?
JH: Make sure your child has approachable adults in their lives besides you. Teens are not always comfortable going to their parents right away. They may feel embarrassed, scared or afraid they will let you down. It might be easier to confide in another adult. Take the time to discuss who that adult may be so you are comfortable too. Youth leaders, instill in your students that it is not ok to be a bystander, especially if your friend is the bully. You have the most influence to get them to stop.
I am grateful to John for his contribution to this blog but more importantly for his work passing laws that I am sure have saved lives. You can read extensively about John’s efforts and access numerous resources on bullying, suicide prevention and cyberbullying at http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org/
For more on this issue, check out these posts: