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.