Oak Park parents and students hear talks on preventing bullying, suicide
John Halligan, whose son committed suicide oin 2003, now travels around the country to talk about bullying.
Updated: March 28, 2013 12:27PM
OAK PARK — Michael Michowski hoped presentations on bullying and suicide prevention sparked discussion among parents and children on the topics.
“This has to be the beginning of the conversation,” Michowski, principal of Brooks Middle School, said of John Halligan’s 90-minute presentations earlier this week.
Halligan’s son, Ryan, committed suicide in October 2003 at 13 years old, after enduring several years of bullying. As part of the school’s bullying and bystander initiative, Halligan spoke to Brooks students on Monday, March 18 during the school day and then to parents that night.
He also presented to Julian students on Tuesday, March 19.
Halligan, who pushed for stricter laws on bullying prevention and suicide education in Vermont after his son’s death, said he wanted to give parents information on bullying, cyberbullying, depression and suicide prevention that he and his wife wished they had.
“Parents, you’ve got to pay attention,” he told the group of about 100 parents.
Middle school students tend to go through major social, physical and emotional changes, and adding the Internet to that can be problematic. Halligan told parents the world their kids live in is a different one than they remember. Bullying that starts at school doesn’t end there.
Children remain in constant contact through social networking sites and texting, he said, and physical fights at school are sometimes recorded and put online.
“Turns out, it’s not about throwing punches anymore. It’s about throwing words,” Halligan said.
Halligan encouraged parents to know their kids’ passwords to online accounts and make sure a child has an adult he will share things with that he may not want to with parents.
If parents sense a child may be suicidal, they should address it, he said.
“Go find out the resources you have available to you and take advantage of them,” Halligan said.
Bystanders — those who watch bullying happen and don’t speak up — can be as bad as bullies. Halligan said he begs children: “Don’t be a bystander, be an up-stander.”
Permission to bully comes from the audience, he said, and he knows it takes guts for kids to speak up.
“Just one friend, to have the courage and maturity to set [the bully] straight . . . this would have been a completely different story,” he said of his son’s situation.
After the presentation, Caryn Snodgrass and other parents discussed the bystander concept. Snodgrass, whose child attends Brooks, also said she appreciated learning about monitoring and filtering software Halligan mentioned parents can use to keep an eye on kids’ online activity.
Gretchen Junker, who has a child at Julian, said she took to heart what Halligan said about being aware of and believing children when they mention any issues with bullying.
“You need to be able to ask, ‘How deep is this?’” she said.
Lindsay Pietrzak, eighth grade assistant principal at Brooks, said students asked inspiring questions and seemed engaged during the daytime presentations. She hopes students use the information to cultivate a positive school climate.
“I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to see how it went,” she said.