Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a three part series about bullying in Vermont schools. It is written by Vermont teacher Catherine M. Oliverio.
While looking through his son Ryan's bedroom at home, parent John Halligan came across the boy's seventh-grade yearbook. Inside was a crude drawing of a stick figure hanging from a flagpole; throughout the book were angry comments scribbled across many student faces in the book. It was as if Ryan was trying to give his father a message. Something was terribly wrong.
"I logged onto Ryan's AOL account and instantly received dozens of responses. First, they wanted to know why I was using Ryan's
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account," said Halligan. "Well, I wanted to know if anyone was willing to share information with me-then the mystery began to unravel. After my son had gone for a medical exam, he shared his experience in a humorousmanner. The bully took it another way and spread the rumor that Ryan was gay. I was grateful that Ryan adhered to the Internet rules. I found folders on the computer that had archived all of Ryan's conversations and that was how I found out how he dealt with the rumor all summer."
There was also a folder for a girl ; it appeared that Ryan and the girl were boyfriend and girlfriend.
When Ryan approached her in person, she said, "Ryan, you're a loser. I was just joking, pretending to like you on line for a good laugh."
Ryan said, "It's girls like you who make me want to kill myself."
Regarding the exchange Halligan said, "I could not imagine the pain and humiliation my son must have felt. I can't imagine how that girl stomped on Ryan's heart."
Someone in the audience at Halligan's presentation at Poultney High School asked, "Did the boy and girl pay for what they did?"
"The girl, Ashley, got blamed for Ryan's death, and she was going to commit suicide," Halligan responded. "Depression killed my son, and I did not want to blame Ashley for Ryan's death. I visited with her, and she was beyond being chocked up. She held onto me, not saying a word, and I said, 'You did a mean thing, but this is not your fault.'"
Tormented Ashley felt she needed to apologize; she appeared with Halligan on a widely viewed national T.V. program, "Prime Time" with Dianne Sawyer. Ashley wanted to help ; she would send a strong statement to those who bully.
"As far as the bully, I lost it. I wanted to crush that kid and kill him," Halligan said. "My wife, my hero saved me from doing something drastic. The Essex, Vt., detective said the kid was a smart aleck and that there was no criminal law that we could throw at the kid."
Halligan posed a challenging question for the Poultney parents, teachers and students gathered at the meeting: "Did you know that most schools deal with harassment and bullying like a conflict resolution? Does that work for you?"
One teen stood up.
"No-students only say what needs to be said just to get out of the office," the unidentified student said. "Retaliation occurs when called a 'rat', 'baby', 'tattletale', and things get worse. There are no checks and balances, and it's a waste of time."
Another student said, "It's no big deal. The bully gains more power; they continue to bully all over again."
Halligan stressed the fact that, at least in the work place, you never-ever-bring two employees into a room at the same time if there's a harassment issue.
"So why do it in school," he asked.
"Two months after Ryan's death, I received a call from another parent and heard that the bully made fun of how Ryan killed himself," said Halligan. "I grabbed my keys and headed to the five roads traffic light in Essex. I wanted to crush that kid, but the very long light changed my drastic thoughts, not to mention I heard my wife's words in my mind."
When Halligan rang the doorbell, the bully answered the door; he quickly disappeared inside the house when his mother and father stepped to the door.
"I asked that the boy return to the room," said Halligan. "The kid looked like he would faint."
Halligan confronted the boy.
"You have no idea about the amount of pain you caused my son," he said. "You're still bullying him, and he cannot defend himself. You're lying to your parents and me. I refuse to believe that you're that heartless and don't have a soul."
Next week: The tragedy of Ryan Halligan's death.