John Halligan is the father of Ryan, a boy who took his own life on October 7, 2003 at the age of 13. Attending Middle School in Essex Junction Vermont, Ryan was bullied beginning in fifth grade, during a time in which, describes Halligan, a change takes place in children, when a “meanness,” and “nastiness,” sets in; when lines are drawn and cliques are formed.
His was the story that unfolded during an assembly given to Onteora High School students on Thursday morning, December 1. I attended the assembly, wanting to report on my own experience with bullying. It never left me and as I was researching this story, I discovered how it resonates into adulthood. It was only three years of my life but being bullied acted as a compass in my professional and personal life.
I’ve been following Halligan because of the change he has wrought, either through his speaking engagements, television appearances or his intense lobbying for anti-bully legislation that passed in Vermont. Bill 629 was passed in May 2004 only seven months after Ryan’s death. Vermont is one of 47 States (including New York) that adopted anti-bully legislation mandating that schools require anti-bully programs and policies.
I don’t want to deflect Halligan’s story by injecting my own. As a parent I cannot even imagine what he went through. As he tells students, “There is no greater human pain for a parent, than to lose a child.” He pleads with them, repeatedly. “All of you are loved beyond belief and don’t you ever believe for a second that you don’t matter.” I thought often of suicide as a teenager. I would fantasize about it, because I believed I didn’t matter. Never once did I wonder how it would affect my family.
According to a Government website (StopBullying.gov) those who are bullied may have a higher risk of depression and anxiety, even during adulthood. Signs include loss of interest in activities, sleep problems, suicidal thoughts, a decrease in grades, health problems and a high risk for violence.
I grew up on the South-side of Youngstown, Ohio with a mixed batch of people, middle class and poor, mostly first generation American children, also black and Hispanic. I was in the local high school theater during elementary school, elementary choir, drum and piano lessons, read comic books, played basketball and football in the streets. I was in the elementary band. When I was very young, my Italian neighbor had a book on Michelangelo. I loved to look at it whenever I visited, profoundly impacted by its beauty. She eventually gave me the book written in Italian and it’s still in my possession. I was an average student and started my ninth grade in public school uninterrupted, after attending middle school at a private school. I joined the choir and track, read a lot and still took piano lessons. I offer these vignettes of my history because in 1978 everything changed. The summer following my freshman year my parents moved us to the suburbs. I had an older brother and sister away at college. It was also around the same time the economic bottom dropped out of the Youngstown industry. I find it interesting how economics often dictates the direction our lives will go. I often think, “what if we stayed?” Halligan reported that in 1993, his family relocated from Poughkeepsie, New York to Vermont when IBM moved out of New York.
I started my new school as a sophomore in a cast from shoulder down to fingers. I broke my arm while racing my bicycle in the streets. The school was large and crowded. I was uncomfortable with my cast and scared because I knew no one. Our class boasted around 600 or more students, while my other High School in total nine-through-twelve, had probably around 1000. Everyone in my new school wore nice clothes and drove cars. No one walked to school because there were no sidewalks and the campus was closed. I spent my lunch the first few weeks in the bathroom after having been given wrong directions to classes. I was being laughed at. I never thought about not wanting to be at this new school until my first day. Everyone was telling me how wonderful it would be. Lesson number one in trust.
I wanted to fit in but I didn’t know how. So started my journey, as a blank slate where making friends was trial and error. Thirty plus years later I still remember particular people who had a tight clique, who dominated the social atmosphere. If only those people (a girlfriend called them “the Gestapo” in my school year book) put their power to good use. I was quickly socially outcast, looked upon as weird and different. My busy life from the South Side came to a standstill. My grades dropped, I stopped extra-curricular activities, had trouble sleeping or would sleep too much at inappropriate times and I remember feeling a loneliness to the point of physical pain. Substance abuse would soon follow.
The year was 1979. I was beginning to make friends. I joined the art club. I was also beginning to piss people off. I was cocky, resentful and arrogant. I swallowed, inhaled, drank and smoked everything legal and illegal before, during and after school. I hated waking up every morning. I became ill often and it eventually morphed into pneumonia my junior year. I fell behind and dropped a number of classes. I also got my license and drove my dad’s blue car to school sometimes. On occasions I had eggs smashed on it. On other occasions I had anonymous love letters posted to the windshield. Someone keyed it. Instead of dealing with the girls locker room, where I was afraid (but to this day I can’t remember why), I asked my mother to get a medical excuse so I could get out. I stopped P.E. classes.
I had freedom with my father’s car. I signed up for pottery classes and visited my old neighborhood. Driving to pottery during the summer of 79, I remember hearing the song by the Boomtown Rats, titled “I Don’t Like Mondays.” The radio announcer said it was a song about a school shooter and when asked why she did it her reply was because, “I don’t like Mondays.” I later discovered that she was the first school shooter and to date the only female. I remember my feeling at the time, one that bothered me, because I wasn’t surprised at what she did and almost felt a connection with her. As a teenager having those feelings caused my depression to sink even deeper — I wasn’t supposed to have those thoughts. As an adult, after reading about school shooters, statistically many are bullied; however this particular girl Brenda Ann Spencer was not. I also learned many are abused or suffer from mental illness, often easy targets of bullying.
Once in English class a teacher picked up on someone calling me skinny. He used me as an example telling the class that some people would see me as skinny when in fact I was “svelte.” This lesson in words, however, had me feeling like I wanted to crawl under a rock, though I still walked away feeling a sense of empowerment. Words do have meaning. Fortunately, because everyone was terrified of this teacher I had no repercussions from it. I was skinny — so what; but then it mattered. It’s difficult to tell a teenager that derogatory terms don’t matter.
It wasn’t peer pressure that led me to substance abuse; it was the sense that I was going nowhere. I had low self-esteem, with grades to prove it. I was the peer who pressured my friends into trying drugs and alcohol. I was an Administrator’s nightmare. Somehow I managed to talk bar keepers into selling me alcohol. I forged day passes and made fake ID’s.
I recall at 16 going on a date to the movie Alien, while the boy wanted to kiss in the back row while playing this silly game that he would save me from the terrible monster. I didn’t want to be that girl in the back row, I wanted to be Ripley — the girl who kicked the monsters ass and looked pretty damn good when breaking into a sweat. I was different, confused and felt uncomfortable. Is this why I gained a reputation as a whore, a slut and tease? Which was it — slut or tease?…because I was called both. I got the notes and heard the same rumors.
I remember my guidance counselor, whom I never saw except for assemblies, would tell us that High School would be the best times of our lives. Glad I trusted no one by that time.
It takes a certain person to be a victim of bullying. I seemed to fit that bill, highly temperamental, moody, emotional and tended to gravitate toward the negative.
It was sometime in the 80’s after I graduated from College with a Fine Art degree that I began to have panic attacks. After a public fainting episode, I learned through years of psychotherapy that I was making myself ill. My life’s journey and the impact of those three years, took me from Chicago to New York City and I returned to school to study art therapy with the desire to help adolescents. My work took me to Harlem, lower east side and South Bronx. I attempted to give purpose to kids who had mothers addicted to crack and gang girls under the ownership of their man. I eventually landed a job at the Covenant House, a place for troubled and runaway teens, only to lose the opportunity when a pedophile scandal broke out having to do with the priest in charge. It closed for a couple of years and I went onto work with adults with disabilities. We painted murals in the South Bronx and built gardens. As a parent, when my son was in Elementary school at Woodstock, I demanded they adopt an anti-bully program. I appreciated being invited to the staff training.
This Thanksgiving holiday, a friend has talked me into attending my 30-year class reunion, the first time I returned to my school memories, armed with statistics, knowing what information I needed gather for my story and also maybe look for a little closure. I had intended my story to be about my class reunion, since leading up to it I felt anxious as memories were returning. But my reunion went like any other. I was thrilled to see old friends and make new ones. I made sure to speak with people I remembered as kind. They made a difference in a subtle way. I asked people their perception of high school and of me. Comments ran from, “it never bothered me,” to “it was hell.” I asked several people about the anonymous love letters on my car and it was probably not a joke, but instead someone too afraid to speak with me. I was told that I was very pretty in high school and many hated me for it. I was also told that I was different and who wants to be different in high school.
I now find myself with students and other administrators, silent, tearful, as Halligan unfolds the details of that horrible day and what he discovered following his son’s death. He told students he would not report how Ryan took his life but I knew through news reports that Ryan hung himself. Halligan did say Ryan’s older sister found him, something that haunts her. He was away on a business trip in Rochester when he got the call from his wife. Ryan left no suicide note, which to the surprise of Halligan and his wife is statistically accurate. Eventually, he would find the clarion call, in the form of a yearbook where Ryan marked up all the people he hated. He also unlocked computer folders to find it filled with the answers he was looking for. Welcome to the brave new world of the Cyber-bully.
Halligan said Ryan had learning disabilities in speech and motor skills. However, by Middle School he was no longer in need of special education services. He still struggled in academics and wanted to play sports but was never chosen. He also suffered from unchecked depression. There was one particular boy who picked on him which led Ryan to learn self defense and the two engaged in a fight. A false friendship transpired as a result and his so called friend spread “gay” rumors after Ryan tried to tell a funny story about a doctor visit.
Partly age, wanting to fit in and partly to overcome the gay rumors, Ryan became interested in a girl from the popular crowd and took up a summer Internet relationship. But her intention was malicious. She “cut and paste,” his private online comments, for her friends to get a laugh, at his expense. This led Ryan to say, “it’s girls like you who want to make me kill myself,” his father explained. After the suicide the family moved to another location mostly so their younger son would not attend the same school. Halligan said he never intended speaking publicly about it, but was asked by a guidance counselor to speak to students and figured it would be just the one time. But he received an email from a student who was affected by his words. It led her to apologize to the people she victimized and he has kept the letter as a reminder. “If I can reach out today to just one person,” said Halligan, “I will have made a difference.”
As I watched people file out of the auditorium, I saw students physically disabled, or students who have in the past spoken to me about their sexual identity. In my day special education children went to other schools or were institutionalized. Gay students stayed quietly in the closet. As we empower those, we too need to protect them. I think of that as I spoke to my own father about the assembly. He said Ohio has an anti-bully law. He also believes people make too much out of it. I remind myself that he comes from another time.
According to the National Center on education statistics, the latest results released in 2010 reveal that bullying tends to peak in Middle School. The highest reported incidences of bullying between grades six-through-twelve are in sixth grade at 42.9 percent. It wanes once in High School, however. The largest reported high school bullying is in grade nine at 30.6 percent. It appears to spike in a new environment. Overall, between grades six-through-twelve, 32.2 percent of students report being bullied. This includes on and off campus in public and private schools. Public school has a slight edge of 32.4 percent reporting compared to private schools at 29.4 percent. The largest weapon of choice or 21 percent of students report bullying comes from insults or name-calling. Total number of cyber-bullying through text or Internet is reported at 3.7 percent.
To learn more about Ryan Halligan, cyber-bully and suicide prevention visit ryanpatrickhalligan.org.++