A cyberbullying suicide, The Revealers and the movement to confront school bullying
The Revealers was first published on October 7, 2003. That's also the date that Ryan Halligan took his own life. In the months and years to come, these two events would remain connected: Ryan's memory would play a key role in starting the national movement to confront bullying, and schools' use of The Revealers would become more and more a part of that movement.
Ryan was a warm, sweet, funny boy, an eighth grader in Essex Junction, Vermont. He had friends and people who loved him, but he also struggled with some physical awkwardness, with some learning challenges, and with depression. In fifth grade, some boys began to bully him verbally. At middle school, this bullying—as it often does—grew much worse. In seventh grade, Ryan learned kick-boxing and stood up to his main tormentor ... and things seemed to get better. But in summer after seventh grade, Ryan became more and more engrossed with instant messaging. He spent hours online, and appears to have grown depressed at what kids were saying and sending to him.
Led by the same bully, middle schoolers were Instant Messaging taunts to Ryan, and spreading the rumor that he was gay. A girl who had made friends with him online told him in person, in front of her friends, that she'd only been toying with him. "I believe there are few of us that that would have had the resiliency and stamina to sustain such a nuclear level attack on our feelings and reputation as a young teen in the midst of rapid physical and emotional changes and raging hormones," Ryan's father wrote after his son committed suicide.
Soon after Ryan's death, his dad logged onto the boy's AOL account and found the instant messages. In their son's memory, John and Kelly Halligan responded to his death by leading the campaign in the Vermont Legislature, that winter, to win passage of the nation's first anti-bullying law. Enacted in July 2004, that law requires all Vermont schools to have a bullying prevention strategy and response procedure, and to take seriously all bullying complaints.
Doug Wilhelm, author of The Revealers, lives in Vermont—and dozens of middle schools in his state were soon using his novel as the focus of reading and discussion projects aimed at bullying awareness and prevention. One of the first schools to do so was the one Ryan Halligan had attended. A teacher and guidance counselor from that school made a presentation with Doug at the annual conference of the New England League of Middle Schools—and The Revealers began to be used in other states as well.
Today, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, every state but two has passed one or more "laws aimed at reducing harassment, intimidation and bullying at school." Hundreds of schools across the country have now worked with The Revealers. John Halligan travels the country telling his son's story and working to prevent teen suicide in the age of cyberbullying.
As the movement to confront bullying grows, the story goes on. So do the impacts of Ryan Halligan's heartbreaking struggle with bullying online.