After his son, Ryan, committed suicide in 2003 in the wake of bullying and depression, John Halligan had just one regret: He didn’t reach out to talk with the parents of his son’s bullies when the incidents first started.
It’s something he said could’ve changed everything, and in an hour-long, impassioned presentation before the hundreds of educators, law enforcement officials and members of the community, he underscored the importance of communication on all fronts, from parents and children to teachers to community members.
“We’ve got to talk with each other more,” Halligan said.
Halligan, whose presentation was the centerpiece of the fifth annual Southern New Jersey Prosecutors School Safety and Security Conference, delivered a stark picture of what bullying entails to kids growing up today.
His son’s experience began with the gauntlet of teasing, taunting and tormenting back in fifth grade. While Halligan recognized it as a problem, it never reached the level of physical violence, and he told Ryan to ignore his bullies as part of what he saw as typical parental advice.
“It was just words,” he said.
Of course, it was more complicated than that, something Halligan didn’t realize until much later.
While Ryan’s bullies seemed to back off after fifth grade, they came back full-force in seventh grade—at least until a fight seemed to settle things, and even resulted in Ryan befriending his former bully, something Halligan and his wife weren’t happy about.
And it was after that friendship formed when the bullying became even more insidious, Halligan said.
Ryan made the mistake of telling his bully-turned-friend what he thought was a funny story, Halligan said, which was twisted into a rumor that Ryan was gay—a rumor spread by that same bully.
Through looking through his son’s AOL Instant Messenger chat logs later, Halligan saw a picture of Ryan trying frantically to do damage control the summer after seventh grade, as the rumor continued to spread online.
“Kids are always on the front lines of this,” Halligan said, and talked of the need to deal with the audience for bullying as much as the bullying.
And schools and parents need to get away from the idea of quick punishment for bullying, Halligan said.
“There’s got to be a learning experience,” he said.
New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow said it’s necessary to be proactive in the face of the very real consequences of bullying–suicides like Ryan Halligan’s and Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s–that make it vital to address the “pernicious cycle” of bullying.
“That’s why we should care,” she said, pointing to the victims of bullying. “It’s tearing our kids apart and often serving as the basis for much worse crimes.”
Kristin O’Neil, who was named West Deptford’s district-wide anti-bullying coordinator this summer, came away from the day’s presentations with a legal pad full of notes, as she looked for ways to bring the anti-bullying message back to the schools and the community in general.
While the state’s law sets in place specific actions the schools have to take with regard to incidents of bullying, O’Neil said it’s important to build a partnership with the community in general.
“It’s not just something that the schools can handle–we need the parents and the community to be there, too,” she said.
To that end, she and West Deptford High School principal Brian Gismondi, who was also in attendance, said they’re working to set up a series of presentations to parents, to better inform and involve them in the process.
“Parents need to understand the way the law is going to change the way we handle issues in the classroom,” O’Neil said. “The old adage, ‘Kids will just be kids’ doesn’t work any more.”