Only about six months have lapsed since Ryan's Story last came to West Deptford Middle School. But the program's message—bullying is serious and can kill—can hardly be driven home enough.
This week, John Halligan returned to tell his son's story once again.
The father of a 13-year-old child who committed suicide after being bullied repeatedly in 2003, Halligan has visited more than 700 schools across the United States. He has told his son's story to thousands of students in hopes that bullying diminishes and disappears from schools.
The debut of Ryan's Story last March at West Deptford Middle School was a huge success. So much so, that school administration, including Anti-Bullying Coordinator Kristin O'Neil, wanted to bring him back again for this school year.
“His story is just so incredible,” said O'Neil after a parents' presentation of Ryan's Story on Tuesday night. “You know he's good when he can get a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students to sit down, listen and really take in his story.”
Halligan talked to the students at West Deptford Middle School and West Deptford High School that he didn't get to speak to in the spring. He also held a presentation for parents on Tuesday night to explain more about his mission and tell them what they can do to prevent bullying.
“The very first time I gave this presentation, it gave me a sense of purpose,” said Halligan. “It made me think, 'You know, maybe there is something good that I can do with this.' So it's become an addiction to me because I love getting up every day and having the opportunity to come out and talk to students.”
His speech certainly captivated sixth- and seventh- graders at West Deptford Middle School on Wednesday afternoon. For an hour, the students listened intently to Halligan as he relived the tragic tale of his son's final days and the events leading to his death.
“The kids appreciate me being honest with them,” said Halligan. “The story happened almost 10 years ago, but it's still very relatable to their situation today.”
After Halligan finished with the story, the students had about 30 minutes to ask questions about the story. Many of them asked questions about the supporting characters in Ryan's Story and about the consequences of different people's actions. It was clear that the story truly hit home with many kids in the room.
“What happened today, kids came up to me and they were honest and they said 'I was Ryan,'” said Halligan. “It's a lot of cheers and a lot of hugs.”
Halligan's visit coincided with the school district's Week of Respect, a week of events that challenges the students to combat bullying in their own lives, both in school and out. The school district, like many around the United States, has taken a tough approach to bullying in recent years.
Halligan believes that thanks to strict anti-bullying laws, such as the one in New Jersey, schools have taken a much more serious stance on the issue.
“Since I first started doing this, I've seen schools doing a much better job,” he said. “I've seen schools be very deliberate about this now. Schools have learned that you can't treat this as a small thing. You cannot educate a child who is emotionally upset.”
For more information on Ryan's Story, visit the website here.
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