After 13-year-old Ryan Halligan killed himself in 2003, his father, John Halligan, was determined to unravel the circumstances that led to his death. Fortunately, he had the key — the password to Ryan’s instant messaging account.
The key opened a door, behind which he discovered a new brand of emotional bullying unlike the kind he grew up with and solved with after-school fist-fights.
“I wasn’t buying this belief that my son killed himself just because one person was mean to him,” Halligan said. “... I believe in the end my son died of an illness — an illness called depression — that I believe came about from a bunch of these bullying events and started way back in the fifth grade, and it was like a snowball rolling down a hill.”
Halligan, of Essex Junction, Vermont, spoke on Saturday at the annual Prevention Summit hosted by I CARE, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System’s alcohol and drug abuse and violence prevention program.
The conference is designed to educate parents, educators and social workers about ways they can help children facing addiction, bullying and other problems.
“If we can increase adults’ ability to understand what the issues are and how to intervene, we improve the lives of children,” said I CARE director Gwynn Shamlin. “... Anyone who says they don’t have these issues are basically fooling themselves. The difference is in what you do about it.”
Shamlin said a child who is dealing with bullying is not going to learn much in school and their overall well being suffers, too.
Halligan learned after his son’s suicide that he sometimes hid in the bathroom at school as a bully circulated rumors that he was gay. The same boy had made fun of him since fifth grade for his awkwardness when playing sports.
There also was a girl who told Ryan online during the summer of 2003 that she liked him, then said she was just joking around when his final school year started.
Halligan said his therapy for the next few months was writing a bullying prevention bill, which the Vermont legislature passed in 2004.
Louisiana passed a similar law in 2012, which requires schools to investigate complaints of bullying within 10 days and to train employees in bullying prevention.
Bullies often just want attention, so they like to do things in front of an audience. Bystanders typically don’t do anything about it, Halligan said, which only empowers the bully.
Although it was a bad idea letting Ryan have a computer in his bedroom, Halligan said, kids today have smartphones in their pockets, and bullies from school can harass them constantly.
“There’s a parent and technology gap,” he said. “... We did not have the Internet to go home and find another way to torment one another. This world that our children grow up in now is very different.”