Confronting Bullying: A Father’s Response to Tragedy

When John Halligan talks, people listen. It’s been eight years since his wife Kelly called him while he was away on a business trip, sobbing that their son Ryan was dead. Ryan died by his own hands at the age of 13 after being tormented by schoolmates for months. As part of his healing process, John has made it his mission to change society’s awareness and attitudes about bullying. To date, he’s spoken at about 1,100 schools and has successfully lobbied for the passage of anti-bullying laws.

This week John presented to student assemblies in Great Neck North and South Middle Schools as well as at a special evening parent meeting. When speaking with students, John makes sure that they get a real sense of who Ryan was and what led him to his tragic death. He challenges their own attitudes towards bullying confronting both bullies and the bystanders who enable the act through encouragement or more often silent acceptance. He also gives hope to those children being picked on, helping them understand, they are not to blame for their pain and offering some ideas on how to find help to get out of the situation.

At parent meetings, John has a different goal; helping them avoid the tragedy he suffered. Here he explains some of the major changes that have occurred in the span of a generation. Although many parents might think of physical confrontations in the school yard, at this point bullying is more frequently expressed in emotional or relational terms. Furthermore, the online environment, an increasingly large part of young people’s lives can easily spawn inappropriateness and cruelty. This can have a particularly devastating affect on a young person when combined with callous in person interactions.

John’s advice for parent; know what your children are doing online. While we’ve all become alert to dangers of pedophiles lurking in virtual space, most adults are clueless about the complex and sometimes harmful interactions that take place amongst the kids. Get familiar with the environment your children are operating within and set real and enforceable limits that are appropriate to their age and maturity level (see “Parenting Suggestions Regarding Technology” a guide sheet that John distributes on this topic).

John points out that being able to sensitively inquire whether your child is being bullied or feels depressed is also a vital conversation. Studies have shown that increasing the opportunity for kids to talk about these issues decreases the risks of self harm. In fact surveys of teenage depression and suicide attempts have significantly decreased in Vermont, the state where John’s family lived and where he gave most of his talks. We can’t fix an exact number on how many young lives John has saved through his message of awareness and compassion, but we all hope brings some meaning to the tragic loss he’s had to endure.

For more information about Ryan and anti-bullying programs see

Special thanks to Dr. James Welsch and Denise Nolan, principals of Great Neck’s Middle Schools, their staff and other school district personnel who brought this excellent program to both the children and their parents.

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