"Be Upstanders" WHS Speaker Urges
For John Halligan there is a solution to bullying.
As he explained it to WHS students,Tuesday, “the kids who do this stuff, they typically get an audience reaction, usually from their friends. That's where the power comes from, that's where the permission to bully comes from. If you took away the audience, you take away the problem here.”
“Don't be a bystander, be an 'upstander,'” he urged the students in a voice that didn't hide his anger for those who fail to act to protect the victim.
Halligan has every reason to be angry with “bystanders.” In 2003, classmates and friends of his son Ryan stood idly by while he was tormented by another friend literally to death. Ryan, who played the guitar, loved comedy, and imitated Jim Carey to his sister and younger brother, committed suicide that year, a tragic end to a life full of promise.
For Halligan, Ryan's death could have easily spelled the unraveling of his life. There is nothing worse for a parent than losing a child, and suicide is a particularly hard sentence for those who are left behind. What saved the young IBM engineer however, was after getting mired for months in the “what ifs,” he eventually found a way to turn Ryan's story to warning and an inspiration for kids who are in the same position. Since 2003 he has traveled around the country, and has talked in more than 800 schools in 38 states about his son. And he is not slowing down.
Why? Maybe because he had another life-changing experience when he finally confronted face-to-face the bully of his son. Instead of “crushing the little jerk” - his first impulse – Hallihan ended up explaining to the boy exactly what he had done, and what kind of sorrow he had created. The tears of the kid, and his heartfelt apology gave Halligan some peace. The episode planted also the seeds of a mission that bloomed when a teacher asked him to talk about Ryan and his suicide to her students. After the speech – essentially the one Halligan gave to Windsor high – a student contacted him and told him that his words had made her think about what she was doing, and had motivated her to approach her victim and apologize.
“I'm not that delusional,” Halligan said. “I can't believe that I stand here, tell my son's story, and touch every heart and mind in this room. I know that's not humanly possible. Some of you have an attitude problem, and you're going to leave with the same attitude problem. Can't fix that in this speech. But I've been at this long enough to know that at least one person, one person in this room is going to take this story to heart, walk out of here, go up to somebody, and simply say 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the way I've been treating you.' That apology, that real heartfelt apology will be life changing.”
Halligan was invited to Windsor High school by a group of sophomores, members of the gifted and talented program taught by Carla Brigandi. Stella Rivera, one of the students, watched last year a presentation Halligan gave at Granby Memorial Middle school, and spearheaded the effort to bring him to Windsor. It took more than a year and a grant from the Windsor Education Foundation that partially funded the event, to achieve this.
After the event the Windsor Journal asked Principal Russell Sills if he feels there is a bullying problem at the school.
“My perception of Windsor High is that we are a really supportive community but I know it exists here,” he responded. “And I know the kids report it here. But one of the things that we don't see as adults is what happens on the Internet, texting, Facebook, Instagram and all of that. I think that's a really nasty part of what is going on, and we're going to have to figure out how to deal with. It's something we're always working on. That was part of the assembly today, to raise awareness.”
In fact, a large part of the bullying Ryan was subjected to happened online, Halligan related. And because online bullying is pervasive, it can be really devastating to its victim who feels he or she cannot escape it, he pointed out.
The solution is to speak up, he told the audience.
“If there's anybody out there who feels how Ryan felt, or have a friend who feels this way, or suffer from depression that has nothing to do with bullying, I beg you to ask for help,” he told the kids. “Don't be embarrassed, don't be ashamed, you're not the first to feel this way. You're not alone. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is not ask for help. If Ryan could be here right now to speak for himself, he would tell you all that he made a tragic mistake. That's obvious. He got all caught up why people didn't like him, and he forgot all about the people who loved him the most. [So] If it's too hard to talk to your parents, find another adult you can talk to – a counselor, a teacher, family friend, relative. There's the Career Resource Center – there are adults in there right now, somebody talk to. I beg you to take advantage of that, if you feel the way my son felt.”
“If you need help,” Halligan stressed, “you've got to ask for it, because we cannot read your minds. Get your friends' help, quick. Don't keep this a secret.