Editor's note: This is part 1 of a three-part series about bullying in Vermont schools. It is written by Catherine M. Oliverio, a teacher at Poultney High School.
Recently Vermont resident John Halligan visited Poultney High School to meet parents and community members to discuss the tragic story of his son, Ryan Patrick, a 13-year-old who committed suicide. Halligan's son felt he couldn't cope with bullying, which began in elementary school, and escalated into another forum through online access as cyber bullying.
Halligan began the meeting with a video introducing his son.
"Ryan was born in 1989 a week before Christmas, one of our best gifts," said Halligan. "By the age of two, Ryan could not speak so we applied for early education to help with his speech language delay and physical therapy to help with his fine motor issues."
At the time of his son's death, Halligan worked for IBM, in Vermont.
"Ryan transitioned well (when we moved to Vermont from New York); he loved sports. He was no longer considered a special education student (SPED) by fourth grade, which thrilled us. We were grateful and relieved," he said.
Halligan shared the horror that engulfed Ryan. The clear message that bullying is not a joking matter seemed to impact the entire audience at Poultney High School.
Parents, teachers and administrators must realize the seriousness of bullying. Halligan said, "There's a fine line with teasing and kidding. When done with permission, that's okay, but otherwise ends up in a situation causing others pain."
Bullies come in all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes.
One moment a bully appears to be sweet and innocent, and without warning, he or she turns on classmates or even fellow workers. Bullies can be so-called friends, family members, and bosses. Although bullying usually starts in elementary school, it may continue well into adulthood.
Ryan's bullying started in the fifth grade.
"It seems the meanness switch turns on with emphasis on personal appearance, socioeconomic status, and who is considered SPED," said Halligan. "Students made fun of Ryan, as he was not an athlete at that time. As his parents, we told him to ignore them. Sixth grade was a blur and thought that seventh grade would be an easy year; but no, the bullying brought more tears.
"One night in December 2002 Ryan had his head on the kitchen table crying-he said, 'I hate that school. I never want to go back there. Can I be home schooled?'"
The bullies had returned.
"My first reaction was to do something about it, but Ryan begged me not to set up a meeting with the principal and guidance because he did not want to be embarrassed," Halligan said. "Instead, Ryan wanted me to teach him to defend himself. This brought back memories of the movie, The Karate Kid. We did a kickboxing program every night and talked about anything and everything."
During this time together, Halligan emphasized that he did not want to get calls from school about Ryan getting into any fights. "I told him that he had my permission to wail on the bully," he said.
Eventually, Ryan and the bully fought with Ryan landing a few good punches, which made Halligan proud.
Ironically, Ryan said, "After the fight, the bully and I actually became friends." Things changed from that point on.
It wasn't until the end of seventh grade and the beginning of the summer of eighth grade, 2003, that Ryan spent most of his time on the computer as if driven by an addiction.
The Halligans had strict Internet safety rules: no IM with strangers, no personal information, no pictures, and no secret passwords.
"I wanted access into the entire computer," said Halligan. "You need to be careful how you trust people online or the cell phone. Sometimes there are things you would never consider saying in person. Words hurt much easier than getting a black eye. It's hard to show a bruised heart. Bystanders do not want to get involved, which is part of the problem but also a secret to fixing the problem. It was suggested to step in and say, "I don't like what you're doing. If you continue, I will not be your friend."
The message was clear: Help bullies become better people. Stop being bystanders.
"After Ryan's death, my wife and I tore apart Ryan's room-it looked like it had been ransacked. We checked his school locker, everything, and found no suicide note, which is a myth. Most of the time there is no note. No note, no explanation, and there's no greater human pain than losing a child," Halligan said.
Next week: The bully problem continues.