Ryan Halligan was 13 years old when he awoke early the morning of October 7, 2003, and hanged himself in the bathroom of his Vermont home.
By outward appearance, Ryan was a happy kid, always smiling. But beneath the surface, Ryan was in emotional turmoil - the result of relentless bullying, online and in person.
Almost a decade later, Ryan's father, John, curses himself for failing to see his son's pain, and has dedicated his life to ensuring that other parents don't make the same mistake.
Since 2004, Halligan has traveled across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Colombia to share Ryan's story with parents and students. On Dec. 4, he visited Fernwood Avenue Middle School in Egg Harbor Township for a presentation to parents from throughout the district.
Shanise Callahan, whose daughter Morgan Mohammed is in seventh grade at Fernwood, attended the talk, finding it poignant and informative.
"This was great, this was really great," Callahan said. "My heart goes out to the family, but it's good that he can share and help another family."
Following Ryan's death, John began a search to uncover the reason for his son's suicide. In the absence of a note, John took to the computer on which his son had spent so many seemingly harmless hours in the summer before his suicide, unraveling a web of harassment and cyberbullying by Ryan's peers.
Halligan, an engineer by trade and self-professed computer geek, had thought that keeping his son away from strangers online would keep him safe - but rather than an anonymous predator, it was Ryan's friends and classmates who had done the damage.
In his talk, Halligan shared several ways for parents to shield their kids from such attacks, such as installing monitoring software, encouraging open communication between parent and child, and putting limits on kids' digital lives.
But while taking precautions against bullying is important, Halligan said, it's understanding what bullying is and the mechanism behind it that will save the most lives.
The idea that bullying stems from a conflict between a bully and their victim, Halligan said, is flawed. Instead, it's seeking approval from a third party - the audience or bystander - at the expense of others that drives the problem.
Identifying these actors and encouraging the bystanders to stand up against bullying, Halligan said, is key to stopping the cycle.
"I believe every school I step into, the vast majority of kids are good kids, they're not bad kids, but the problem is with peer pressure, they feel it's safer to hide behind the person doing the bullying than to step out in front of them," Halligan said.
Halligan's appearance at the school was the culmination of more than a year of work by Alder Avenue Middle School Assistant Principal Kevin Fricke, who saw Halligan talk at a convention two years ago and thought his message would be valuable for his students.
Halligan visited students at Alder and Fernwood in early November, sharing a different version of Ryan's story, which Fricke said was followed by an outpouring of understanding and apology between his students.
While the fight against bullying is a hard one, it's a battle that the Egg Harbor Township school district and the state of New Jersey are committed to for the long haul, Fricke said, and presentations such as Halligan's will go far in this effort.
"I want all parents and all kids to know, learn from his mistakes, go for help, do the right thing, go for answers, and for kids to know hope is not lost," Fricke said. "A lot of times kids can only see what's right in front of them, but there's so much they can look past to get by those issues. If they just ask for help, they'll overcome them."
For more information on the Ryan's Story presentation or for a list of Halligan's tips and recommended software, see
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