Ryan Halligan spent the summer before his eighth-grade year in front of a computer talking to a girl on instant messenger.
He was convinced she liked him. Sure, he had been bullied off and on for the past two years by a boy in his class, but there was at least one girl who thought the 13-year-old was cute.
By the fall, everything started to fall apart.
It turned out the girl was only pretending to like Ryan. She would play along and then laugh at their intimate conversations with her friends. The school bully decided to spread a nasty rumor about him around the school. Classmates started to believe it.
“I thought he just needed a pep talk,” his father, John Halligan, said Wednesday night at Braswell High School. “It wasn’t the time for a pep talk and a hug. It was time for so much more.”
One day in October 2003, Ryan walked up to the girl who pretended to like him.
“It’s girls like you that make me want to kill myself,” he said.
The next day, Ryan was dead.
He committed suicide after enduring years of abuse, both online and in school.
“It’s not about throwing punches anymore,” Halligan said. “It’s about throwing words.”
Since their son’s death, the Halligans have worked to pass anti-bullying laws in their home state of Vermont and John has traveled across the country to give suicide prevention seminars to students and parents.
Earlier in the day, Halligan spoke to students at Navo and Rodriguez middle schools in the hope of teaching kids to intervene if someone is getting bullied. On Wednesday night, he gave parents some advice on how to spot signs of depression and stop cyberbullying, or online harassment by classmates at school.
Halligan's story may hit a little closer to home in Denton County in the wake of a somewhat similar tragedy.
On New Year's Day, Gracie Dodd died by suicide at age 14. Lt. Orlando Hinojosa, a spokesman for the Denton County Sheriff's Office, said another 16-year-old girl attempted suicide at the same time, but was transported to a local hospital.
Community members held a vigil for Dodd after the incident while Aubrey ISD had counselors and clergy at the high school campus if other students needed to talk to someone. A student at Aubrey High School, Dodd was involved in band and the Future Farmers of America.
"Gracie had a wonderful sense of humor and was well liked," Aubrey High School Principal Matt Gore said in a statement. "Her friends said she was always full of energy and enthusiasm. She was an important part of Aubrey High School."
Although Gracie's family said bullying at school or online wasn't an issue in her life, teen suicide remains a struggle for many kids across the country.
Statistics from Mental Health America show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between 15 and 24 years old, right behind car crashes. More than 4,000 10-to-24-year-olds die by suicide each year.
Because a lot of bullying happens in a school setting, educators are trying to stymie the problem. State laws require school districts to go through certain steps when dealing with bullying problems and a recent expansion of the law in Texas allows administrators to address cyberbullying that happens off-campus.
Denton ISD held a widely attended seminar last semester that dealt with adolescent depression and Aubrey ISD recently launched an online platform where parents or students can submit bullying complaints anonymously.
But it’s not only up to the schools, Halligan said.
“Don’t keep throwing stuff over the fence and expect schools to keep cleaning up the mess for you,” he said. “A lot of these things happen after school and they happen on the technology you bought your kid, so you’ve got to take ownership of that.”
Halligan had some suggestions for parents when it comes to bullying and technology:
-Ask your child to show you what they do on their device.
-Don’t let your child have secret passwords to their accounts or share their password with friends.
-Discuss bullying with your child and keep a written record of each incident.
-Monitor device usage and use filtering software to keep unwanted apps or websites out of reach.
-Set time limits for how long your child can use their device.
“Now parents, when you go home tonight, don’t overreact,” Halligan said. “Don’t go smashing phones and ripping out the internet. Sleep on it, make a list and don’t try to do this all in one day.”
Oftentimes, when someone dies by suicide, people look around for a single reason as to why, but Halligan said it’s not that simple.
“There’s not a bright, straight line between bullying and suicide,” he said. “We don’t want to normalize suicide as a response to bullying. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
Halligan believes that much of it has to do with underlying mental health issues, but he also noticed one similar personality trait between kids who died by suicide.
“The one thing I hear over and over is that these children were sensitive,” he said. “We have to pay more attention to them. I don’t think we need to change them. We need more sensitive people in this world. We just need to get them to adulthood.”
For more information about John Halligan and Ryan, go to www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, go to www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 1-800-273-8255.
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.