John Halligan arrived at Keith Valley Middle School about 30 minutes prior to his scheduled 1 p.m. presentation Wednesday. While in front of the auditorium, he fiddled with a MacBook Pro; he said he didn’t want the computer to “sleep” as it cycled through the images.
After the eighth-grade class entered the auditorium, and after assistant principal Sarah Stout introduced Halligan, he made an introduction of his own.
“I’d like to take a moment to introduce my son to you,” he said.
He then pressed play on a photo montage which was set to music. He watched as he slumped against a wall.
Halligan’s son Ryan died in Vermont in October 2003. He committed suicide following years of bullying, much of it at the hands of one student. Ryan was 13 years old.
Halligan, a former IBM employee, now spends his time speaking to students about the effects of bullying — speaking to the victims as well as the bullies. And he’s on something of a whirlwind tour, but it’s nothing new for him. He’s already spoken at 700 different schools. Earlier in the day he had spoken at Upper Moreland School District and he will speak at the Norristown Area, Souderton Area, Cheltenham, and Upper Perkiomen school districts later this week. On Tuesday he spoke in Elkhart, Ind.
Several Montgomery County agencies, including the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department and the department of health, helped organize the visit and presentation.
“At first, I got a law passed and then I thought I was done,” Halligan said prior to the presentation. “Then I was invited to speak at a high school. I thought it was a neat idea, but I struggled on what to say, so I showed a video and told Ryan’s story. I didn’t know what to expect.”
The students during that first presentation were respectful, Halligan said, and one of them even reached out to him.
“One of the students, about six months later, said she was changed and she decided to apologize to all of the girls she tormented over the years,” Halligan said. “I said, ‘Wow, it’s really encouraging to see that I changed someone.’”
Halligan said he wants students to take a strong suicide prevention message away from the presentation and added that he wants students to know the important role of bystanders when it comes to bullying.
Following the video, Halligan talked about his son. He said when his son was younger he was developmentally delayed — he had speech and language development delays and fine- and gross-motor skills delays and needed occupational therapy. However, he was doing well at his school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The trouble for Ryan started in fifth-grade, after his family had moved to Essex Junction, Vt. One of Ryan's classmates was bullying him, but it wasn't physical.
“It’s like there’s a ‘mean switch’ for kids when they reach fifth-grade,” Halligan said.
Halligan, like many parents, told his son that the bully probably had issues of his own, and suggested that he walk away. The bullying persisted, though, and Ryan told his parents that he hated the school — he even asked to move or to be home-schooled. Despite the problems, he begged his parents not to meet up with school counselors or the principal.
In December 2002, Ryan had asked for the Tae Bo kickboxing program for Christmas and wanted to learn how to fight. Halligan seemed happy with this, and likened it to the movie “Karate Kid.” Ultimately, Ryan fought his bully, and actually became friends with him.
“I thought the ‘Karate Kid plan’ had worked perfectly,” Halligan said.
But, later in the year, the bully had started a rumor that Ryan was gay and the bully used AOL’s Instant Messenger as a platform to spread it quickly. Halligan said Ryan spent almost all of the summer of 2003 behind a computer, trying to quell the rumor.
And, in an effort to squash the rumor, Ryan had been communicating with a popular girl with whom he thought liked him. It turned out she was leading him on as a joke; she humiliated him in school and called him a loser.
He then took his life.
“I am convinced that there is no greater pain than a parent losing their child,” Halligan said. “All of you are loved beyond belief — trust me on this one. Don’t believe for a second that no one would miss you if you were gone.”
The students listened to Halligan intently, and were able to ask questions at the end of the presentation — Halligan just asked that they not ask for details about Ryan’s death.
They wanted to know what happened to the bully and what happened to the girl. (Halligan and his wife met with both of them separately and ultimately forgave them, though Halligan said he wanted to kill the bully initially.) And the students wanted to know if anyone had been criminally charged. (No.) Was Halligan bullied as a child? (Yes, in seventh-grade.) Has Halligan ever received paranormal visits from Ryan? (No.)
Prior to the presentation, Halligan said he had pretty much heard all of the questions before.
Halligan said at the end that no one person was responsible for Ryan's death and added that Ryan had an illness, depression, that went undiagnosed.
Halligan’s presentation ties in nicely with Keith Valley’s anti-bullying program, KV K’NEX, Stout said. In its third year, it’s meant to connect students with other students, as well as adults, to talk about bullying.
“As social issues arise, as in any middle school, children are going to realize that they are connected with other children, and not necessarily just those in their own grade level,” Stout said.
Principal Jonathan Kircher said the program also incorporates teambuilding activities, character building, and emphasizes the importance of not being a bystander. The K’NEX program has won two national awards including the Hero Award from the Truman Pierce Institute at Auburn University in July, and the National Exemplary Program Recognition at the National Conference on Bullying in Orlando, Fla.
“Bullying is a problem everywhere,” Kircher said, “but we took proactive steps to address it.”
“And things are different now,” Stout said. “When we went to school, you got off the bus and it stopped. It doesn’t stop now. And for us, how do you police Facebook at 2 a.m. on a Saturday? Luckily, more kids are reaching out and saying what they’re seeing online.”
For more information about John and Ryan Halligan, visit www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org.