Students at Canfield High School and Canfield Village Middle School were touched by a special guest speaker on Dec. 18, when John Halligan from New York spoke about his 13-year-old son Ryan, who committed suicide in 2003 after years of being bullied.
Halligan told students that Ryan was slow in school and had to have special education classes in elementary school. While still slow, he was given the green light to enter fifth grade in the regular classroom setting. That is when the bullying began by another student and his small band of friends. To deal with the problem, Halligan said Ryan had asked for a kick-boxing program he saw on a TV infomercial.
Halligan said after weighing several choices, the kick-boxing course was ordered and Halligan spent hours each week working out with his son.
Special guest speaker John Halligan comforts CVMS eighth graders Christina Tucker and Jennifer Smith after he told the story of his 13-year-old son’s suicide in 2003. Halligan has made it his life’s mission to visit schools and send the message about bullying.
"Fighting wasn't the answer," Halligan said.
According to Halligan, Ryan had worked hard at kick-boxing and then the day came when he faced down his bully. After a fight between the boys, Halligan said afterwards it seemed to be going well. Halligan said, to his dismay, the bully wanted to be Ryan's friend.
By the time Ryan reached seventh grade, Halligan said, the bullying went from in-person to the Internet with derogatory text messages and a hurtful experience when a girl broke Ryan's heart by pretending to build a relationship with him only to tell him later it was a joke. The texting and derogatory postings continued until Ryan could no longer take it and on Oct. 7, 2003, Ryan took his own life.
After studying the messages his son was receiving, Halligan said he decided to dedicate his life to helping others who have been bullied. In 2004, he spearheaded the Vermont Bullying Prevention law which led to a 2006 law pertaining to suicide prevention education in public schools.
Halligan has since appeared on "Primetime" with Diane Sawyer, on a PBS special titled "Growing Up Online" and in 2009 appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. During this time he also has visited hundreds of schools to bring Ryan's story to the students.
Halligan's appearance last week in Canfield was made possible because of a student who was also bullied in school. Alise Rafoth said she was bullied by students at Canfield High school and she eventually left the school district because of it.
"My sophomore year at Canfield High School I was bullied by some of my peers," Rafoth said. "It was very difficult for me to get past this situation. I feel like only people that were victims of bullying can really help and encourage other victims through the hard times. This is why I wanted to donate money through A's Attic to bully awareness for the ones who do not tell anyone. I decided to put the money we raised towards getting a speaker at Canfield High School."
A's Attic is a fashion store inside Adamas Jewelry store. It is run by Alise and her sisters, Alyssa and Alexis. While Rafoth has overcome the bullying years and went on to grow and be a successful businesswoman, she wanted to help others facing similar situations, she said. One way she could accomplish this was to bring in Halligan to Canfield schools as a guest speaker.
"I wanted Mister Halligan because he is the one that helped me realize I needed to say something to my family about my situation," Rafoth said. "His story inspired me to turn my situation into something positive. When I first heard about Ryan's Story, it really got through to me. I have hope that Ryan's Story will help others like it helped me."
Rafoth approached CHS Principal John Tullio about having the assembly. In addition A's Attic, more supporters came forward to cover the cost of getting Halligan to speak at both the high school and the middle school. Supporters included the CHS student council, Leo's Club, the Canfield Senior Class, the Canfield Police Department, Canfield Rotary and Adamas Jewelers.
"Bullying is done for an audience," Halligan said. "We have to reach that audience in order to change things."
Following the CVMS assembly, eighth grader Jennifer Smith said, "I think bullying is a mild issue in Canfield, but it does happen. I know now that I would have to step up and say something if I see it happening."