Brooks students hear from dad of bullied teen
John Halligan will speak to students and parents in two sessions Monday, March 18 at Brooks Middle School in Oak Park about his son, who committed suicide in 2003 after being bullied. He is shown here talking to students in Oak Forest last year. | File ph
Updated: April 15, 2013 6:40AM
OAK PARK — John Halligan never planned to share his son’s story with students across the country.
But students at the Vermont middle and high schools that first learned of Ryan Halligan’s experience being bullied and his eventual suicide in 2003 were so affected by John Halligan’s presentation that his story spread.
Since then, Halligan has spoken to students at 800 schools. On March 18, he will talk about his son, bullying and the role of bystanders with Brooks Middle School students as part of the Brooks Bullying and Bystander Initiative.
“My approach is at least try to get to their hearts and minds,” he said.
Halligan’s presentation wraps up a month of planned events at the school, “but, of course, we’d like to continue some of the activities we’re doing so it’s not one and done,” said Lindsay Pietrzak, eighth grade assistant principal.
Pink Shirt Day kicked off the bullying and bystander initiative, with students wearing pink on Feb. 27 to take a stand against bullying.
Eighth-grader Sydney Jackson — part of the committee that organized the activities — said she was pleasantly surprised by how many students came to school wearing pink. Students will wear the shirts again on March 18.
Also on Feb. 27, author Caroline Pignat read from her novel, “Egghead,” about three teens learning to deal with bullying and speak up for others. The book is being read in all core classes and is tied into the curriculum, Pietrzak said.
“It’s just the idea that we don’t want it to be something separate from what the kids are learning, because it’s all connected,” she said.
Literacy Week begins March 18 and features more anti-bullying activities, including a presentation by eighth grader Ben Srajer – also part of the committee – that will address the serious side of bullying.
The goal of the bullying and bystander initiative is to teach students empathy, Srajer said.
Pietrzak said educators know bullying happens and they want to give students the tools to address it.
“Middle school is huge for social and emotional growth,” she said. Parents and teachers can step in if bullying occurs, “but the change has to come from the students because they’re the ones making the decision to do something or not do something.”
Srajer and Jackson said they hope the activities make students aware of bullying and the need to take action. Not speaking up for a victim can be as bad as actually doing the bullying, they said.
“Kids are desensitized to bullying, period,” Srajer said. “I hope they start to understand and realize what’s happening around them.”
After showing a video of his son, Halligan will explain what happened to Ryan and talk about bullying, cyberbullying and what bystanders can do. He then lets students ask questions, which he said keeps the presentation fresh.
“That’s probably the most powerful part of the assembly,” Halligan said.
Halligan also will share his message with Julian Middle School students on March 19 and will speak to parents the night of March 18 at Brooks.