If We Only Knew, If He Only Told Us
October 7, 2003 will always be the day that divides my life. Before that day my son Ryan was alive. A sweet, gentle and lanky thirteen year old fumbling his way through early adolescence and trying to establish his place in the often confusing and difficult social world of middle school. After that day my son would be gone forever, a death by suicide. Some would call it bullycide or even cyber bullycide. I just call it a huge hole in my heart that will never heal.
Our son Ryan was a sweet, gentle and very sensitive soul. He was born in Poughkeepsie , NY just a week before Christmas. That Christmas, Ryan was the best present of all. As he grew, his affectionate way made it irresistible to hug him and feel him hug you back. He had the magic ability to bring a smile to anyone that looked his way. As he grew, he developed a wonderful sense of humor too. And when we moved into new neighborhoods twice during his life, kids quickly gravitated to his warmth and friendliness.
But there were early concerns with Ryan’s speech, language and motor skills development as he neared kindergarten. Ryan received special education services from pre-school through the fourth grade. We will always be grateful for the entire staff at Hiawatha Elementary School in Essex Junction for being so wonderful and caring for our son. The special education team there fell in love with him and his drive to do his best every day. By the time he reached the fifth grade, he was assessed to be on grade and no longer needing special education services. But as he became older, he also became more aware that he was not as academically strong as most of his classmates. This began to bother him deeply as he headed into middle school. He had to work much harder at homework, re-reading assignments several times to comprehend the material. He was hard on himself, no matter how much we tried to lessen the academic pressure and focus his awareness of his other strengths.
I often told Ryan that there are all kinds of intelligence, for instance: academic, music, physical and social intelligence. I always felt his strength was social intelligence- that his very warm, sweet, caring and sensitive personality would take him far in life because people liked being with him. One of the best compliments we ever received about Ryan was from a parent that said they loved having him over and wanting his sweetness to rub off onto their child.
It was during the fifth grade that we first began to encounter the bullying problem. A certain kid and his friends picked up on Ryan’s academic weaknesses and his poor physical coordination. But since he was not being physically bullied by these boys, only by words, we advised him to just ignore them, walk away and remember that he had good friends to count on. We even went so far as to get him a therapist to further help him develop coping skills and to boost his self-esteem during this school year. By the end of fifth grade he seemed fine and so, based on the therapist’s advice, we stopped the sessions.
Ryan’s middle school, Albert D. Lawton (ADL) in Essex Junction, Vermont had grades 6 through 8 in the same building. It was a bit of a scary transition for Ryan coming in as a very young 6 th grader into a building with some pretty older looking 8 th graders lurking through the hallways. As with his early school years, Ryan still struggled to make average grades. School still was not easy for him and he often brought up the concern of being put back in “sped” (special ed.)
Sure enough, the bullying problem resurfaced on and off during his first middle school year, but never to a point that gave us great concern. Again, we had the conventional adult belief that this was just kids being kids, a part of growing up ... that encountering mean kids in middle school was just inevitable. But the situation got much worse for him during the 7th grade.
In December 2002, the bullying problem surfaced again to a significant level. There was an evening that month when he just had a melt down … a very tearful session at the kitchen table. We thought 7th grade was going fine but discovered he was bottling up a lot of bad experiences during the first few months. Again, it was the same kid and his friends that bullied him on and off since the 5th grade. They were tormenting him again and he said he hated going to school, that he never wanted to go back there. He asked that night if we could move or home school him.
I was torn between wanting to be his bodyguard all day and feeling he needed to (again) learn how to manage the situation as a part of growing up. We sat at the kitchen table discussing our options that evening. We explained that moving in the middle of the winter was not a good time and home schooling was not an option because Mom worked part-time. I said, “That’s it Ryan. I had enough. Let’s take it to the principal and have him put a stop to it once and for all.” To that, Ryan exclaimed, “No dad, please don’t do that. They will only make it worse. I see it happen all the time.” Instead Ryan asked that we help him learn how to fight so he can “beat the heck" out of this kid if he or his 8th grade friends tried to jump Ryan.
How I wish I could now turn back the clock. I wish we instead looked into why Ryan did not trust his school administration to address the problem in the first place. But at that moment in time, I immediately thought of the movie “The Karate Kid” and said so to Ryan. We laughed and agreed that was exactly what was needed for this situation. But instead of karate, Ryan was much more interested in Billy Blank’s Taebo Kick Boxing program which often aired as a 30 minute commercial in this time frame. He asked that we get him this program along with the punching bag and boxing gloves for Christmas.
After a short discussion with Kelly, we bought Ryan the “Taebo” kick boxing training kit for Christmas that year. All through the month of January and into February, Ryan and I got down to business. After dinner every evening we did this exercise program together. These are some of my favorite memories of time spent with Ryan. We talked about a lot of things during these workouts including strategies in dealing with the bully and his friends. I was quite proud of him, seeing his self confidence build. It truly felt like the "Karate Kid" movie, getting him ready for the big match. But I reminded Ryan that he was never to start a fight with this kid, but he certainly had my permission to “whale on him” the moment he laid a hand on Ryan.
Sure enough, we got a call from the assistant principal after a school day in February 2003. He just broke up a fight between Ryan and the bully at the nearby Maple Street Park in our village. He said Ryan was ok but wanted us to be aware. We were very grateful for his intervention. When we found Ryan walking home, he was both scared and elated. He was shaking but said he got a few good punches in and felt good he was able to stick up to the bully. He said, “I got a few good punches in before Mr. Emory got there. That kid probably won’t mess with me anymore.” We were all feeling pretty relieved that day for Ryan; for being able to stand his ground and seemingly make it through a typical teenage rite of passage.
As the months followed, he seemed to be doing great. He was still struggling academically, but that was always the case for Ryan since kindergarten. He acted out like a typical middle school age kid – moody at times but also very sweet and funny most of the time. The "normal" ups and downs were what we observed. And we were always there for him, always reminding him how much we loved him. For the rest of 7th grade, I kept checking in with Ryan and asking him if that kid was still bothering him. His answer was always the same … that since that fight, the bully had left him alone. I often thought to myself, “This plan worked perfectly!”
One day Ryan’s answer surprised us. He said he was now friends with the kid. We were not happy with this news. We warned him to watch his back since this kid was his nemesis for so long. We discouraged the friendship but decided to back off, feeling he was of age to make decisions like this and potentially have to learn from a misjudgment. How I wish we instead ended the so called friendship right from the start.
Ryan’s young teen life included swimming, camping, skateboarding, biking, snowboarding, playing computer games and instant messaging. A typical array of “healthy” and “normal” teen activities … or so it seemed. My son loved being on-line, staying connected with his friends after the school day and throughout the summer. But during the summer of 2003, a greater deal of time was spent on-line, mainly instant messaging. I was concerned and felt compelled to remind him of our internet safety rules.
- No IMing/chatting with strangers
- No giving any personal information (name/address/phone) to strangers
- No sending pictures to strangers
- No secret passwords
Our last rule was a safety one. I told my two older children that they had to use the password I gave them for any accounts they signed up. I promised I would not read personal messages or spy on them but, “God forbid you don’t follow the first few rules and you just disappear one day, I will want instant access to all of your activities on-line.” Never in a million years did I imagine this rule would someday end up becoming the key to unlocking the mystery of why my son took his own life.
A few days after his funeral I logged on to his AOL IM account because that was the one place he spent most of his time during the last few months. I logged on to see if there were any clues to his final action. It was in that safe world of being somewhat anonymous that several of his classmates told me of the bullying and cyber bullying that took place during the months that led up to his suicide. The boy that had bullied him since 5 th grade and briefly befriended Ryan after the brawl was the main culprit. My son the comedian told his new friend something embarrassing and funny that happened once and the friend (bully) ran with the new information that Ryan had something done to him and therefore Ryan must be gay. The rumor and taunting continued beyond that school day … well into the night and during the summer of 2003. During the summer, my son approached a pretty “popular” girl from his school on-line and worked on establishing a relationship with her; I’m sure as a surefire way to squash the “gay” rumor before everyone returned to school in the fall.
When the 8 th grade school year started up again, Ryan approached his new girlfriend in person. I’m sure he was never prepared to handle what happened next. In front of her friends she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she was only joking on-line. He found out that her friends and her thought it would be funny to make him think she liked him and to get him to say a lot of personal, embarrassing stuff. She copied and pasted there private IM exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.
Now certainly my son was not the first boy in history to be bullied and have his heart crushed by a pretty girl’s rejection. But when I discovered a folder filled with IM exchanges throughout the summer and further interviewed his classmates, I realized that technology was being utilized as weapons far more effective and reaching then the simple ones we had as kids. Passing handwritten notes or a "slam" book has since been replaced with on-line tools such as IM, Websites, Blogs, cell phones, etc. The list keeps growing with the invention of every new hi-tech communication gadget.
It’s one thing to be bullied and humiliated in front of a few kids. It’s one thing to feel rejection and have your heart crushed by a girl. But it has to be a totally different experience then a generation ago when these hurts and humiliation are now witnessed by a far larger, online adolescent audience. I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before computers and the internet. But I believe there are few of us that that would have had the resiliency and stamina to sustain such a nuclear level attack on our feelings and reputation as a young teen in the midst of rapid physical and emotional changes and raging hormones. I believe bullying through technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt to levels that will probably result in a rise in teen suicide rates. Recent statistics indicate that indeed teen suicide is on the rise again after many years of declining rates.
I want to be very clear. I don’t blame Ryan’s suicide on one single person or one single event. In the end, Ryan was suffering from depression. This is a form of mental illness that is brought on by biological and/or environmental factors. In Ryan's case, I feel it was the "pile on effect" of the environmental issues mentioned above that stemmed from his middle school life. Tragically, teenage depression often goes undetected against the backdrop of typical teen angst. And since most of us have never received basic education in the signs and prevention of teenage suicide at any point in our lives, young people suffering from depression are at greater risk.
We have no doubt that bullying and cyber bullying were significant environmental factors that triggered Ryan’s depression. In the final analysis, we feel strongly that Ryan's middle school was a toxic environment, like so many other middle schools across the country for so many young people. For too long, we have let kids and adults bully others as a right of passage into adulthood inside a school building. We place accountable for this tragedy, first and foremost, on ourselves as his parents... but also on Ryan’s school administration, staff and the young people involved. As parents, we failed to hold the school accountable to maintain an emotionally safe environment for our son while he was alive. But accountability and responsibility should be shared by all involved - parents, bullies, bystanders, teachers and school administrators ... basically the whole system.
Something had to happen in response to this tragedy. It had to be something substantial and sustained, not just a short lived sympathetic response. We decided to take all this intense pain and channel it into productive areas to help other young people avoid the same fate as our son. You’ll learn on the other pages about the bully prevention law we spearheaded in Vermont that holds schools much more accountable in preventing and responding to the issue. We also worked closely with I-Safe America to raise awareness about cyber bullying and the severe emotional impact it can have on a young person. We've done several national and local news media interviews to spread this story. And we continue to collaborate with various suicide prevention groups to drive into our Vermont schools more education about depression and suicide prevention among middle school and high school students.
Nothing can ever bring back our Ryan. Nothing will ever heal our broken hearts. But we hope by sharing the personal details of our tremendous loss, another family will have been spared a lifelong sentence to this kind of pain.Vibs to his family, you can visit the site at http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org/index.htm