Franklin James Cook

Father Crusades against Cyberbullying after Son’s Suicide

In Advocacy, Grief, Prevention on March 15, 2009 at 8:40 pm

ORIGINAL STORY — Reporter Allison Pries, writing in The Hackensack Record, tells the story of John Halligan’s participation in a New Jersey middle school summit, where “the father of a Vermont teen recounted his son’s suicide and put a face to the problem of cyberbullying.”

“Mr. Halligan’s story brought out the emotional side of bullying,” said Nick Schifano, a Ramsey student council officer. “It shows it doesn’t just hurt one person. It hurts family and friends.”

As young people spend more time instant messaging, texting, e-mailing and using social networking sites, the peer harassment that once occurred in hallways and schoolyards has followed them into cyberspace, experts say.

“It’s so much a part of their life,” said Richard Wiener, the Smith School principal. “So we have to equip them to use the technology in a way that’s going to be productive, not destructive.”

Halligan, after a 23-year career with IBM, is delivering the message about Ryan and cyberbullying full-time.

“The schools need and want this,” he said.

In his presentation, Halligan urged the middle school students not to be the folks who laugh at the teasing of others. “A bully wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the power trip he gets from bystanders,” he said.

The message from Halligan, explaining how Ryan’s abuse had forever changed his entire family, was particularly poignant.

“(Bullying) is probably the No. 1 assembly topic,” said Spencer Lambert, an eighth-grader from Ramsey who attended the summit. “But hearing it from a firsthand witness — and the emotion — definitely made a difference.”

Halligan’s outreach includes administering the website, which “is dedicated to the memory of our son Ryan and for all young people suffering in silence from the pain of bullying and having thoughts of suicide.” One of the final paragraphs from the introductory message on the site’s homepage is a moving summary of cyberbullying’s causes and the sources of its solution:

We have no doubt that bullying and cyberbullying were significant environmental factors that triggered Ryan’s depression. In the final analysis, we feel strongly that Ryan’s middle school was a toxic environment, like so many other middle schools across the country for so many young people. For too long, we have let kids and adults bully others as a right of passage into adulthood inside a school building. We place [accountability] for this tragedy, first and foremost, on ourselves as his parents … but also on Ryan’s school administration, staff and the young people involved. As parents, we failed to hold the school accountable to maintain an emotionally safe environment for our son while he was alive. But accountability and responsibility should be shared by all involved — parents, bullies, bystanders, teachers and school administrators … basically the whole system.

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