Suicide of Ryan Halligan
|Born||Ryan Patrick Halligan
December 18, 1989
Poughkeepsie, New York, United States
|Died||October 7, 2003
Essex Junction, Vermont, United States
|Resting place||Holy Family Cemetery
Essex Junction, Vermont, United States
|Parent(s)||John P. Halligan
Ryan Patrick Halligan (December 18, 1989 – October 7, 2003) was an American student from Essex Junction, Vermont, who committed suicide at the age of 13 after being bullied from his classmates in real life and cyber-bullying online. According to the Associated Press, Halligan was repeatedly sent homophobic instant messages, and was "threatened, taunted and insulted incessantly".
His father, John P. Halligan, a former IBM engineer, subsequently lobbied for laws to be passed in Vermont to improve how schools address bullying and suicide prevention. He has also given speeches at schools in other states about the story of his son.
Halligan's case has been cited by legislators in various states proposing legislation to curb cyber-bullying. In Vermont, laws were subsequently enacted to address the cyberbullying problem and the risk of teen suicides, in response. In 2008, his suicide and its causes were examined in a segment of the PBS Frontline television program entitled "Growing Up Online." His suicide has also been referenced in many other news stories on bullying.
Halligan was born on December 18, 1989 in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of John P. and Kelly Halligan. His family moved to Essex Junction, Vermont, where Halligan attended Hiawatha Elementary School and, later, Albert D. Lawton Middle School.
He was described by his father as a "gentle, very sensitive soul," who experienced some developmental delays affecting speech and physical coordination in his early school years. Although he overcame those difficulties by the fourth grade, "He still struggled; school was never easy to him, but he always showed up with a smile on his face, eager to do his best," said his father.
When Halligan was 10 years old, he suffered bullying at the hands of a group of students at his school because of his learning disorder and because his passion for music (drums and guitar) and his love for drama set him apart. His father said that when Ryan told him he was being picked on, his initial response was to ignore the boys, as they were just bullying him with words. The family said later in a short documentary that Halligan enrolled in counseling, with little success. After that he moved up to middle school, where the bullying continued on and off for the next 2 years.
In December 2002, Ryan told his father that the bullying had started again. He asked for a Taebo Kick Boxing set for Christmas in order to learn how to defend himself. At first his father wanted to go to the school principal and sort things out, but Ryan wanted to learn how to fight, believing that complaining to the school about the boys would make things worse. After Christmas, Ryan and his father developed a routine of practicing downstairs in the basement for 2 hours every night. After Ryan had learned to handle himself, his father told him not to pick fights at school, but said that if any student ever touched him aggressively, Ryan had his father's permission to defend himself as best as he could.
In February 2003, Halligan had a fight with the bully, which was broken up by the assistant principal; after that, the bully stopped bothering the boy. Toward the end of 7th grade, Halligan told his father that he and the bully had become friends. But, after Halligan told the boy about an embarrassing examination required after he had stomach pains, he learned that the bully misused the story to spread a rumor that Halligan was gay.
According to his father and news reports, during the summer of 2003, Halligan spent much of his time online, particularly on AIM and other instant messaging services. Halligan did not tell his parents about this. During the summer, he was cyber-bullied by schoolmates who taunted him, thinking he was gay. Ryan was also bullied at school about this; his father later learned that on one occasion, Ryan ran out of the classroom in tears. As Ryan had unintentionally archived these online conversations on his hard drive when he installed DeadAIM, his father was able to read these discussions. Ryan had deliberately saved transcripts of online exchanges in which Ashley, a popular girl whom Halligan had a crush on, pretended to like him. Later at school, she told him that he was a "loser". According to an ABC Primetime report, she had once been his friend and defended him when the bullying first started; when she became more popular in middle school, she left him behind. He found out she only pretended to like him only to gain personal information about him. She copied and pasted their private exchanges into other IMs among his schoolmates to embarrass and humiliate him. Mr. Halligan said that he was proud of his son sticking up for himself.
After the girl had called him a loser, Ryan said, "It's girls like you who make me want to kill myself." His father found out about this later because it was a matter of record with the local police. Halligan's father also discovered some disturbing conversations between Ryan and a boy with a screen name he did not recognize. Halligan began communicating online with a pen-pal about suicide and death, and told him he was thinking about suicide. They had been exchanging information they had found on sites relating to death and suicide, including sites that taught them how to painlessly kill themselves. The pen-pal answered "Phew. It's about fucking time," shortly after Ryan told him he was thinking about suicide, two weeks before he killed himself. This was the last conversation he had with the pen-pal. As Halligan found out, contrary to popular belief, Ryan's pen-pal was a boy Ryan knew up until third grade when the boy and his parents moved away. When they found each other online, they reconnected.
The pen-pal had, according to Halligan's father, turned into a very negative person with a bleak outlook on life. Online the boys discussed how much they hated their popular classmates and how they made them feel. The penpal suggested suicide as a way out, writing, "If you killed yourself you would really make them feel bad." Ryan's father said that the boy was the worst possible friend that Ryan could have had at that time.
The parents acknowledged that Ryan had discussed some of his worries and brought up suicide. He had told them his report card would be bad, and worried that his parents would be disappointed in him. One night he asked his dad if he had ever thought of suicide, who responded that he had, but also said, "Ryan, imagine if I did do that. Look at all the things we would have missed out on as a family."
Suicide and aftermath
On October 7, 2003, John Halligan was away on business. Early in the morning, when family members were still sleeping, Ryan Halligan committed suicide by hanging himself. His body was found later by his older sister.
Although Halligan left no suicide note, his father learned of the cyberbullying when he accessed his son's computer. He had checked his son's yearbook first and found the faces of the bullying group scribbled out. Halligan had scribbled over the face of the ringleader (the same boy who fought Halligan, befriended him, and then started the gay rumor) so aggressively he had torn the paper. John Halligan accessed his son's computer and first learned of the cyber-bullying when his son's friends told him.
When he learned that Ashley was being blamed for Halligan's suicide, the father had her brought over to his house. He reportedly said to her, "You did a bad thing, but you're not a bad person." She appeared with John Halligan on ABC's Primetime to speak out against bullying. Although the Halligans moved out of Vermont, she still maintains contact with them.
He confronted the bully who had started the gay rumor after he found out he had made fun of how Halligan killed himself. At first he was so angry he wanted to go to the boy's house and "crush that little jerk," but he had time to think while stuck in traffic. Halligan reportedly said to the boy, "You have no idea the amount of pain you caused my son. And you're still bullying him now even when he's defenseless and you are still lying to your parents about it. I refuse to believe that you are so cruel and that you don't have a heart." Shortly afterward the bully broke down into tears and repeatedly apologized for what he did.
John Halligan wanted to file charges against the bully but the police said there was not a criminal law that covered the circumstances. Halligan forgave the boy as well as Ashley. After learning the name of the penpal, Halligan's father went to his house and talked with his parents. Halligan said that he did not want the penpal to use the conversations for "something dark." While at the penpal's house, John Halligan learned that the boy's father never received any hard copies of the conversations. The penpal's mother came and pulled out the hard copies from under the sofa, showing them to the father for "what appeared to be the first time." While the father was looking at the copies, the mother threw John Halligan out. Halligan said that he never got a satisfying response from the boy or his family. He still visits the boy's website, which contains several references to death and suicide.
The senior Halligan began to lobby for legislation in Vermont to improve how schools address bullying and suicide prevention. He has also given speeches to schools in various states about the story of his son and the devastating effects of cyber-bullying among teens.
Vermont enacted a Bullying Prevention Policy Law in May 2004 and later adopted a Suicide Prevention Law (Act 114) in 2005, closely following a draft submitted by Halligan's father. The law provides measures to assist teachers and others to recognize and respond to depression and suicide risks among teens. Halligan's case has also been cited by legislators in other states proposing legislation to curb cyber-bullying.
Halligan's story was featured on a Frontline television program entitled "Growing Up Online," produced in January, 2008, by WGBH-TV in Boston and distributed nationwide over PBS. In it, his father recounts his shock upon discovering the extent of the abuse his son endured, saying he believes that bullying on the internet "amplified and accelerated the hurt and pain he was trying to deal with, that started in the real world." Halligan's story has also been featured on Oprah in a report they did on a rise in homophobic teasing in schools. In addition, he presented his powerful assembly to many schools across the country.
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- Norton, Justin M. (February 21, 2007). "States Pushing for Laws to Curb Cyberbullying". Fox News. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- "Teen suicide: Greater IBMer John Halligan says there IS something we can do". Connections eMagazine. IBM. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- O'Connor, Kevin (5 April 2010). "In grief, a father goes hunting for answers". rutlandherald.com. Retrieved 4 November 2012.
- Flowers, John (October 19, 2006). "Cyber-Bullying hits community". Addison County Independent. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- Halligan, John (2009). "Ryan's story". Ryan's Story Presentation. Retrieved 2010-02-21.
- "I.S. 228 Takes Proactive Approach to Stop Bullying". New York City Department of Education. 2010-11-29. Retrieved 2013-02-03.
- Growing Up Online (Chapter 6: "Cyberbullying"). "Frontline" (Television production) (Boston: PBS). January 22, 2008. Event occurs at 0:08:16–0:08:30. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- Ryan Halligan at Find a Grave
- Ryan's Story Presentation, LLC - memorial site
- Online bullying compels states to act
- Included in PBS Frontline report, "Growing Up Online"