In the past year, cyberbullying has become a hot topic among parents and school administrators across the nation trying to make sense of a rash of student suicides.
But for John Halligan, cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon; he says his 13-year-old son was driven to commit suicide in 2003 after suffering from bullying online and at school. Halligan will talk about bullying during three presentations for Williamsburg-James City County middle school students on Feb. 3 and 4. He’ll also present a free session for adults at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3 in the Warhill High School Auditorium.
At the time of his death, Ryan Halligan was an eighth-grader at a middle school in Essex Junction, Vt. He endured teasing and bullying throughout his childhood, but it escalated in the seventh and eighth grades. His parents sought help from specialists and trained their son in martial arts to boost his confidence, but were stunned to find that much of the bullying he endured was happening online.
On his web site, John Halligan said the advent of new forms of communication has expanded the reach of bullies. It also allows a wall of separation to go up between the bully and victim, with neither seeing the other’s reaction to hurtful words. “I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before computers and the Internet,” he wrote. “But I believe there are few of us 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.”
He believes bullying through technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt felt by the students affected. In memory of Ryan, he pushed for bully prevention laws, resulting in the passing of the Vermont Bully Prevention Bill in May 2004. He also successfully lobbied for the passage of a law requiring mandatory suicide prevention education in public schools, which passed in April 2006.
In his student presentation, Halligan will share home movies and pictures of Ryan before sharing the perspective of a parent trying to help a student who is a victim of bullying. For adults, he will talk about how to monitor children’s activity online and encourage children to keep in mind that anything they share online could be passed along to an unintended audience. He will also discuss ways of recognizing warning signs of suicidal behavior.
The WJCC School Board joined the rest of the state to pass a resolution Jan. 4 recognizing January as “Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools Bullying Awareness Month,” with the intention of discussing bullying and its prevention in schools and classrooms. At Tabb Middle School in York County, a new yearlong anti-bullying program called Tigers Against Bullying Behavior has raised awareness of bullying behavior by distributing “Stop Bullying Now” bracelets.
“The issue of bullying, and especially ‘cyberbullying’ in the age of social media, is one that WJCC takes very seriously,” said David Gaston, director of Specialized Educational Services. “We believe that Mr. Halligan’s compelling message is one that needs to be heard by students and parents alike as we continue to foster a safe learning environment in our schools.”
Bullying will be receiving extra focus regionally in the next month. On Feb. 15, all area school divisions will send representatives to a conference on bullying sponsored by the National Center for the Prevention of Community Violence on Feb. 15 in Newport News. One day later, a hearing is set at the York-Poquoson Circuit Court for a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against four York County school officials. Alise Williams alleges the Grafton High School officials had a duty to ensure the emotional safety of her son, Christian, who committed suicide in May.