By Gail McCarthy
---- — Rockport school officials are taking new steps toward creating a positive learning environment.
That includes steps against bullying – and that has included the father of a 13-year-old who committed suicide telling more than 500 Rockport high school and middle school students that they are the ones who hold the most power in preventing bullying by speaking up and walking away.
“Bystanders are a big part of the problem. Bullies do it for the audience. If you speak up and walk away, you take that audience away from the bully, John Halligan said during a recent presentation at the school.
“If your friend is bullying someone, tell your friend that it is not OK,” he said. “The friends of people who bully have the most power to stop it.”
This is just one program brought into the schools to help foster a positive learning environment. Before the end of the school year, Ed Gerety will talk to students about how to be a leader as an individual and as a community, said Phil Conrad, who serves as principal of the high and middle schools. Both programs are funded by a Rockport Rotary grant.
Halligan urged students to be an “upstander” to help stop bullying and not be a bystander. But he also wanted students to know they are never alone and that they are surrounded by adults who want to help if they are in need.
Halligan, who lives in Vermont, has toured nationally to speak on the effects of bullying, visiting 858 schools in 35 states — including Manchester Essex Regional Middle/High School in 2010. His program called “Ryan’s story” has been broadcast on several national outlets outlets, including CNN Anderson Cooper 360, PrimeTime with Diane Sawyer and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Halligan told the students of how his son Ryan committed suicide on Oct. 7, 2004 after years of bullying. He told the crowd that he never intended to be a regular speaker on this subject.
”If one person takes this story to heart, this will be worth if,” he said. “If one person says ‘I’m sorry how I treated you’ to someone they bullied, then this is worth it.”
At the time of his death, Ryan was a student at a middle school in Essex Junction, Vt., where the family had moved from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After the boy’s death, it was discovered in great detail that he had been ridiculed and humiliated by peers both at school and on-line.
Halligan told of how the bullying had started at the hands of another boy in elementary school. He described to students how he came home one day to find his son with his head down on the table who told him “I hate that school. I never want to go back.”
When his son died a few years later, the family never found a note to understand the reason why. But Halligan said contrary to popular belief, there often is no note left behind by those who take their lives. The father would later learn that one of the final heartbreaks for his son came from a girl who led him on that she liked him during continued online messaging. But in fact she was mocking him, then humiliated him to his face in front of a group of her friends.
“My son died of an illness called depression that started with bullying when he was in the fifth grade,” Halligan told the hushed student audience.
Rockport Schools Superintendent Robert Liebow attended both the middle school and high school presentations and said he was struck by how silent the students were as they left.
”The most powerful thing I thought was at the end when they filed out of that auditorium, there was not a sound,” he said. “They left somber and reflective, and it was powerful to see that. You would think they would be ready to resume the usual student life with chatter and giggles, but there wasn’t a sound.”
Liebow also commented on Halligan’s message to the teens that being an “upstander” and not a bystander.
”That message was about how to take the power away from a bully,” he said.
Conrad, principal of the high and middle schools, said the topic was a necessary one to address.
”The subject was important for us as a school and community to continue focusing on making our school an inclusive place for all,” he said. “John Halligan’s program was a wonderful presentation that focused on forgiveness, creating ‘upstanders’ instead of bystanders, and letting students know they are loved more than they know.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.