PEABODY — Students at Higgins Middle School got a harsh and concrete example yesterday of how bullying can turn tragic.
Ryan Halligan was just 13 when he committed suicide in 2003 after classmates at his school in Essex Junction, Vt., harassed and teased him relentlessly, both online and at school. Yesterday, Ryan's father, John, spoke to every student about the events that led to his son's death. The brutal name-calling. The false rumors that he was gay. The story of the cruelty of a popular girl who pretended to like him online, only to laugh in his face and call him a "loser" in front of her friends as she revealed that the whole flirtation was a mean joke.
"It's girls like you that make me want to kill myself," Ryan told her on the day he took his own life.
Since his son's death, John Halligan has traveled the country sharing Ryan's story to students, parents and teachers in the hopes that he can prevent another senseless death.
His story seemed to touch a nerve with many Peabody students.
"I may not have known your son, but I've been there before," one girl said as she sobbed in the middle of a packed auditorium.
After applause and a few warm embraces from her classmates, Halligan said to the girl, "Thank you, sweetheart, you are very brave. Thank you."
Asked to give a one-word summation of Halligan's story, students in sixth grade said "sad," "touching," "heartbroken" and "tragic."
Unfortunately, middle school students can be particularly cruel, and today there are more and more outlets for that expression. With one click, a student can alert an entire school of a nasty rumor, forward a text or photo, and make a classmate a pariah.
"Your age group has more technology available at home than any group that's come before," sixth-grade teacher Vinnie Raponi told his students after the presentation.
How many students have considered the fact that each text or instant message they send can be forwarded to hundreds of others with merely a click?
Only two or three students in the class of about 25 raised their hands.
"You guys can be so brutal to each other online," Halligan said. "The emotional abuse among people your age is an epidemic."
In the spring, Massachusetts passed a comprehensive anti-bullying law that requires teachers to report instances of bullying directly to an administrator. There are also mandates for training for both teachers and students to help them recognize what bullying is and how to combat it.
The law was passed in response to the suicide deaths of 11-year-old Carl Walker Hoover, a sixth-grader in Springfield on April 6, 2009, and of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a student at South Hadley High School, who took her own life earlier this year.
But whether for fear of retaliation, embarrassment or being labeled a crybaby, kids don't always let adults know about being bullied.
When asked directly how many have been victims of bullying, zero students in Raponi's sixth-grade class raised their hands initially. Finally, after 10 long seconds of students scanning the room, a few hands slowly rose.
About half of the students in the class thought things would get worse for them if they went to an adult to report bullying.
"Usually if you do that, it goes around and more people get on your back about it," said Alec Olsen, a student in Raponi's class.
Ryan Halligan had begged his dad not to intervene with the principal or the bully's parents, his father said.
Now, the elder Halligan wishes he had.
"The vast majority of students are not bullies and are not bullied. They are the ones who stand by and laugh," Halligan said. "They think, 'I don't know that person well, they aren't my friend,' or 'the group may turn on me.' If you stand by and do nothing, you are just as guilty as the bully."
No matter the situation faced by bullying victims, suicide is never an option, he said.
"This isn't it, this is not your entire life. I know it feels like it now because it's all you know, but there's so much beyond here," Halligan told the students.
Halligan said there's hope for bullies, too.
"I know if one person takes this story to heart and walks up to a person and says, 'Sorry for the way I've treated you,' that apology will be life-changing for both people," he said.
The sixth-graders seemed to understand.
"What people say to you stays with you forever," Alec said. "It's not like a black eye that goes away."
What is bullying?
The Massachusetts state Legislature defines bullying as: "the repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (1) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim's property; (2) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (3) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (4) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (5) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school."