‘A hole in my heart’

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Father of cyber-bullying victim speaking to parents, students

By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

What would you pay to keep your child safe from a bully?

What if you could get that knowledge for free?

This evening local parents will have an opportunity to learn strategies to help protect their children from the newest kind of bully — the cyberbully.

Vermont resident John Halligan’s 13-year old son was bullied by classmates both in school and online. Doubtless, he wishes he was spending this evening catching up on Ryan’s college life. Ryan would be 19 now.

Instead Halligan will be at Henry County High School talking to middle and high school students and parents about Ryan’s suicide at age 13.

Ryan Halligan, a middle school student, was the victim of cyberbullying in the extreme.

The Halligans found out after Ryan’s death the extent of the ridicule and humiliation he suffered at the hands of his peers.

“Oct. 7, 2003 will always be the day that divides my life,” John Halligan said. “Before that day my son Ryan was alive ... 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.”

Today he will fill in the blanks of Ryan’s story at an assembly for students and, later at a seminar for adults.

HCPS chief information officer Nikkol Bauer said though there have been no cyber bullying incidents locally that rise to the level that contributed to Ryan Halligan’s death, the district has detected an increase in the practice.

“We’ve seen kids harassing each other on MySpace or Facebook,” she said, “and it spills into school.”

Halligan’s Web site says cyber bullying uses technologies such as e-mail, texting, instant messaging, defamatory personal Web sites and digital photography to support repeated acts by  an individual or group, that are intended to embarrass, humiliate or intimidate the victim.

The MindOH! Foundation describes it this way.

“Cyberbullying is different from face-to-face bullying because the bully is removed from the immediate and tangible feedback of the victim.  They don’t “see” the harm they have caused or the consequences of their actions, which minimizes any feelings of remorse or empathy.  This creates a situation where kids do and say things on the Internet that they would be much less likely to do in person.”

Halligan will share with parents practical suggestions regarding how to be knowledgeable about and proactive in children’s online lives.

For instance, if your child is under 13, you have the option to have social networking accounts deleted since most of these services have an age and/or parental consent requirement.

He also says to ask your child if they have ever been ridiculed, intimidated and/or humiliated on the Internet and encourage them to come to you for support if they are being bullied.

Those are just two on a long list of suggestions Halligan offers.

John Halligan has been an outspoken advocate for cyberbullying legislation. He spearheaded the Vermont Bully Prevention bill which was signed into law in May 2004 just months following Ryan’s death. Halligan also led the passage of a law pertaining to mandatory suicide prevention education in public schools in April 2006.

He has shared his family’s tragedy on Good Morning America, the CBS Early Morning Show and Prime Time with Diane Sawyer: “Cruel Intentions.”

Halligan will present “Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Youth Depression” tonight, Wednesday, August 26 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Henry County High School. There is no charge to attend.

Visit his Web site at www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org.

To register for this event go to www.henry.kyschools.us/bullying or call Nikkol Bauer at 845-8606.

E-mail us about this article at news@hclocal.com.