For many people, children hold a special place in their heart. Besides being adorable, they occasionally surprise us with intelligence, wisdom, and empathy that is beyond their years. But on the other hand, they can also surprise us with shocking cruelty.
The phrase “kids can be mean” exists for a reason. More than simple teasing, bullying can have a serious negative impact on kids. When one kid was subjected to bullying, it would have particularly disastrous results…
Ryan was the second child born to a middle class family in Poughkeepsie, New York. His father John described him as a “gentle, very sensitive soul.” The sweet kid loved music, playing guitar and drums, and a love of drama.
But unfortunately for Ryan, he had some developmental difficulties experiencing developmental delays affecting speech and physical coordination in his first couple of school years. With some special assistance, Ryan was able to mostly overcome those difficulties by the time he reached the 4th grade. “He still struggled,” John said, “ but he always showed up with a smile on his face, eager to do his best.”…
Sadly, it was in the 4th grade that Ryan became a target of bullies. As is often the case, the things that made him special also made him a target for bullies. They picked on him because of his learning disorder as well as his passion for music and theater.
It’s Just Words
“When Ryan came to me and said he was being picked on, my initial response was ‘it’s just words,” his father John said. “You need to just ignore him.” Still, the teasing was damaging to his self esteem, so his mother Kelly decided to get him a counselor…
“With the combination of the therapist and the advice we were giving him,” John said, “I thought we were going to be ok.” But over the next couple of years, the bullying kept up. It got the the point in the 7th grade where Ryan asked his parents for a Tae Bo Kick Boxing set for Christmas so he could learn to defend himself.
Helping His Son
John would rather talk to the school principal about the physical bullying his son was now experiencing but Ryan thought that would just make things worth. So instead, John and his son spent 2 hours every night practicing self defense in the basement. Ryan was told not to pick any fights but given permission to defend himself if anyone touched him aggressively…
The following February, Ryan would put that training to use when he got into a fight with a bully at school. Fortunately, the fight was quickly broken up by the assistant principal and no one was seriously hurt. There was even better news, too. As often happens when 2 boys have a fight, Ryan and his former bully began to develop a friendship afterward.
Because the bully had antagonized Ryan for a long time, his parents warned him to be careful with his new friend. They were right to worry because after Ryan confided in his ‘friend’ with an embarrassing story about a medical examination he’d had after he had stomach pains, the other boy misused that story to spread a rumor that Ryan was gay…
Even Worse Teasing
The rumor caught on amongst Ryan’s schoolmates and he was relentlessly teased about his supposed homosexuality, not only at school but also online through AOL Instant Messenger and other instant messaging services. Because his parents were unaware of the online bullying, they couldn’t do anything to stop it, even after the school year ended and summer began.
Not all of Ryan’s online interactions were bad, though. He was friends online with a popular girl named Ashley that he had a crush on. The two of them spent a lot of time talking together, sharing secrets with each other…
But Ashley never had kind intentions in talking with Ryan. She was just pretending to like him so she could share their private conversations as fuel for more teasing. After she’d made their talks public, she called Ryan a loser, to which he replied “It’s girls like you who make me want to kill myself.”
Ryan was also having dark conversations with another online pen-pal, who turned out to be an old friend of Ryan’s until his family moved away. They would discuss how they were both bullied, death and suicide. “If you killed yourself you would really make them feel bad,” the pen-pal said…
Ryan was having more and more thoughts about killing himself so he turned to his father asking him if he ever thought about suicide. John said that he had but added “Ryan, imagine if I did do that. Look at all the things we would have missed out on as a family.”
Still, Ryan was looking for a way out of his suffering. He had a final conversation with his pen-pal saying he felt that he should go through with suicide. His pen-pal replied with “Phew, it’s about f***ing time,” the worst possible advice he could have given…
Just 2 weeks after that conversation, Ryan acted on his decision. Early in the morning, when his family was still asleep, Ryan Halligan hanged himself with the belt of a bathrobe that belonged to his older sister. When she woke up in the morning, it was his sister that found his body hanging in the bathroom.
‘Our Son Is Dead’
“I was never prepared for that phone call,” said John, who was out of town for work at the time. Sobbing through her tears, Kelly told him “John you need to come home. Our son is dead. Ryan killed himself.”…
Because Ryan hadn’t left a suicide note, it wasn’t immediately clear why he had killed himself. It wasn’t until John accessed his son’s computer and discovered the archives of Ryan’s conversations. Finding out that their son had been going something so much worse than they’d known only added to the pain of the situation.
Despite the tragic loss of their son spurred on by bullying, Ryan’s family tried not to be bitter toward the kids who’d tormented him. When they found out that Ashley was being blamed by her schoolmates for Ryan’s death, John invited her to their home, where he told her “you did a bad thing, but you’re not a bad person.”…
You Can’t Be So Cruel
But when John found out that the bully who had started the gay rumor was now making fun of how Ryan had killed himself John had to confront him. He went to the boy’s house and said to hem “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’re still lying to your parents about it. I refuse to believe that you are so cruel and that you don’t have a heart.” The boy broke into tears and apologized profusely for what he’d done.
Please Get Help
After his son’s suicide, John successfully lobbied for legislation in Vermont to improve how schools react to bullying and suicide prevention. If you or anyone you know needs someone to talk to, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you would prefer to chat with someone online, you can go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/