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Vermont dad warns Saugus on bullying, suicide

SAUGUS – A Vermont dad brought his heart-wrenching tale of bullying and teenage suicide to Saugus where he shared it with students and parents.John Halligan’s son, Ryan, killed himself on Oct. 7, 2003, after being bullied by classmates at school and online. He was 13.According to Halligan, not until after the boy’s death was the extent of his emotional suffering revealed.”My son was ridiculed and humiliated by his peers,” said Halligan, noting many students were bystanders who knew what was occurring yet did nothing to stop it.Through online chatter, the boy was wrongfully labeled as gay. “Ryan was trying to deal with this rumor that started at the end of seventh grade. He tried desperately to put an end to it,” Halligan said. “I underestimated the effect of emotional bullying.”Halligan said he and his wife, Kelly, should have done more to help the boy, who begged them not to intervene at school. Getting their son to an emergency room would have been far better than the morgue, but they didn’t recognize how serious the situation had become, he said.Eight years later, Halligan is on a crusade to raise awareness about bullying and change the laws that govern it. He compiles plenty of advice for parents who might find themselves in a similar situation and appears on television shows including PBS “Frontline,” “Primetime with Diane Sawyer” and “Oprah.”Among his tips: Monitor the teenager’s computer. Don’t allow secret passwords. Look into who the child is communicating with.”Parents have to pay attention,” he said. “There were no ?go to’ adults besides us and that was a mistake.”A teenager with no adult from whom to seek advice will likely ask his equally immature and inexperienced peers. Halligan said, “Ask your kid, ?If you did something and were scared to come to mom and dad, who would you go to?’ Have a plan in place. My son didn’t have an adult to go to.”Instead, the boy chatted online with a girl who pretended to like him when, in fact, she was sharing their private online conversations with her friends. The boy was also communicating regularly with another teenager from a different town, discussing the pros and cons of suicide and how one might go about it.Two weeks before Ryan Halligan took his own life, he told his parents a bad school report card was en route home. The parents told him they would create a plan to get the grades up, but the boy simply replied, “What’s the sense of living?”The sorrow-filled dad said he failed to pick up on this remark as a sign of deep depression. “I thought he needed a pep talk or a hug,” he said. “I should have asked him right there if he felt suicidal.” Statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control indicated more than 7 percent of teenagers suffer from depression or contemplate suicide.The boy and others were also “cutting” themselves at the time. “That’s why I say no wristbands,” said Halligan, explaining cutters often wear thick wristbands to hide the wounds. “My son had been cutting himself but I didn’t find that out until the autopsy,” he said.In closing, he emphasized bullying is not about conflict. It is a repeated act intended to intimidate, humiliate or ridicule. It can be physical, social or intellectual. And typically it exists only when bystanders allow it, for they imbue bullies with the power necessary to inflict harm.Halligan said Vermont laws against bullying are still inadequate despite his efforts to change them. He praised the Massachusetts version of those laws because they put pressure on the parents.

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