GMS closes out Pawsitivity Week with Ryan’s Story

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When John Halligan was a senior in high school, his art teacher walked into class one morning with tears in her eyes. She told the class that she had just learned that a former student had committed suicide. She then added something that Halligan has always remembered.

“She said, ‘Don’t ever forget this. You can always turn an ink blot into a butterfly,’” Halligan told students at the Galvin Middle School last Friday during a presentation about his son Ryan. Ryan Halligan took his own life on October 7, 2003, after being bullied by students at his middle school in Essex Junction, Vermont. Ryan was 13 years old and in eighth grade.

John Halligan shares his powerful and emotional story about his son, Ryan, who took his own life after years of bullying. (Moira Sweetland photo)

John Halligan shares his powerful and emotional story about his son, Ryan, who took his own life after years of bullying. (Moira Sweetland photo)

Halligan’s speech and video presentation was the culminating activity of “Pawsitivity Week,” a week of activities dedicated to anti-bullying and to promoting respectful and responsible relationships at GMS.

“This is the first year of Pawsitivity Week for the Galvin,” Assistant Principal Jim Spillane wrote in an email. “In previous years we held a Spirit Week, but it was mostly about school spirit.”

Matt Masciarelli, a science teacher at the school as well as a student council leader, and math teacher Cory Johnston also helped plan Pawsitivity Week and the activities. “We wanted to devote a week dedicated to anti-bullying and being kind to each other,” Spillane added.

Pawsitivity Week began with the GMS community wearing clothing with numbers to show that everybody counts at the Galvin. During Bulldog Block, an advisory period at the end of the school day, students and faculty decorated large puzzle pieces with their name and pictures and words that showed things they like and enjoy doing. The pieces were assembled on a wall in the main hallway to form a large puzzle.

“If one piece (or student) is missing, then the puzzle is incomplete,” Spillane said. “It is a powerful message to see all the puzzle pieces fit together to create a single collage.” Johnston helped to design the puzzle activity.

Students and faculty wore something black to school on Tuesday as a way to show that they were going to black out bullying. In homeroom, students completed an anti-bullying certificate. Wednesday was designated Mix It Up Day. Lunch periods were extended by 10 minutes and students sat with different classmates to get to know someone new. Thursday was Random Act of Kindness Day. Students were encouraged to be kind to others every day.

Friday was GMS Spirit Day. Students, faculty, and staff dressed in green or white to show school spirit and attended Halligan’s powerful presentation about the life and death of his oldest son.

Ryan’s birth a week before Christmas in 1989 made that holiday the best one ever for his family. Halligan described Ryan as a sweet, kind, and gentle little boy who had not started speaking by the age of 2, was somewhat awkward, and was late in hitting developmental milestones. Doctors diagnosed speech and language and developmental delays. Ryan was enrolled in special education classes and in fourth grade had made enough progress to attend regular education classes. But in fifth grade another student began to bully him.

The bullying continued and in December of seventh grade, Ryan sat at the kitchen table sobbing and told his father that he did not want to return to school. When Halligan told his son that he wanted to call the principal, Ryan begged him not to, out of fear that the bullying would worsen. Instead Halligan purchased a Taebo kickboxing training kit for Ryan and helped him do the exercise program.

A few months later, Ryan and the bully had a fight, and Ryan felt good about standing for himself, Halligan recalled. A few months after that, Ryan told his parents that he and the bully were now friends. Not long after that, however, the bully started a rumor that Ryan was gay. To shut down the rumor, Ryan began an online friendship in the summer of 2003 with a girl from his school. Back at school in the fall, Ryan approached the girl in person while she was standing with a group of friends. She called him a loser and said that she had been joking online. Not long after that, Ryan ended his life.

Eighth graders Allie Gefteas, Stephanie Trendell, and Grace Nourse found the presentation about Ryan to be a thought-provoking and moving experience. “I felt like he was bullied over something that was out of his control,” Trendell said. “That’s not right.”

“If I had to put myself in that position, I don’t know how I would deal with that,” Gefteas said.

Nourse said she was a victim of bullying in elementary school — an experience that left her sensitive to the feelings of those around her. “It gave me a whole new perspective on how I treat others,” she said. “Being nice is one of the most important things in life.”

On Friday, students received green and white wristbands designed by Gefteas and Trendell as a reminder of the Pawsitivity message.

“Everyone is bullied at one time in their life,” Trendell said. “It depends on how you handle it. If you keep it to yourself, it makes it worse.” Halligan had the same message for the GMS students. “Don’t let anybody step all over you,” he said. “Ask for help. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be ashamed. Don’t keep this stuff a secret.”

Spillane described the week as successful. “Overall, the week went great,” he said. “Student and faculty participation was excellent, and each day students were engaged in the day’s theme. I received many positive emails from parents thankful about Pawsitivity Week. They were pleased we brought John Halligan back to speak to students. Hopefully it is a week that really impacts our students and leaves an impression of being kind to each other.”

Since Ryan’s death, Halligan has devoted a great deal of his time to anti-bullying efforts. Through his efforts and the work of others, Vermont passed Act 117, the Bully Prevention Law, in 2004. For more information on Ryan Halligan, go to RyansStory.org.

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