WARRENSBURG — The school district has seen its share of tragedy, and Wednesday’s presentation by a Vermont father whose son died by suicide was part of an overall, year-round plan to prevent more heartache.

Principal Doug Duell and his staff welcomed John Halligan to the high school to share the story of his son’s suicide while an eighth-grader in 2003.

“Some schools see bringing me in as a one-shot deal, but people like Doug wrap around what I am doing and refer to Ryan’s story when they are doing other programs,” Halligan said.

“This is just part of an overall program we are using to give students the information and education to keep themselves safe,” said Duell.

His school, like many others, has lost a student to suicide, and Warrensburg has developed a response.

Superintendent John Goralski said his district’s approach is all-inclusive.

“It’s not just about bullying. It’s not just about suicide. It’s about teaching the students to act the way toward each other that they want to be treated.”

From day one

At Warrensburg, it starts on the first day of school, when Duell directly addresses bullying and adds, “and we are going to do something about it.”

It includes the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which covers kindergarten to 12th grade and is reinforced every year.

It includes the Lifeline Curriculum, which reaches parents, faculty and students; and the Positive Behavior Intervention System, as well as a specific focus on suicide presentation.

It also includes bringing in Halligan, who lobbied successfully for a bullying law in Vermont after his son’s death.

“He’s got an important story to tell, and it’s one that the students listen to,” Duell said.

Telling the story

Halligan, who worked at IBM before becoming a full-time anti-bullying advocate, estimates he will have visited 2,000 schools before this school year is out.

His message seemed to resonate across age boundaries. Duell, a father himself, had to pause in introducing Halligan because he started to get teary. Two faculty members came up to the box of tissues and grabbed some before and during the presentations. Students focused on Halligan, were silent immediately afterward and were quick to ask questions.

“I feel like it’s a message that everyone needs to hear. I think we all have experienced the bullying,” said senior Hailey Sweet.

Duell said the same.

“It’s very personal and he does a really nice job of resonating with the kids,” he said.

Warrensburg’s program, which included a parent meeting this year and ongoing anti-bullying and anti-violence training, is resonating.

“I personally don’t see a lot of bullying here,” said 11th-grader Adam Allen. “I was bullied in seventh grade and I mentioned it to my teachers and my friends, and it stopped.”

Kayla Casey said the school’s faculty keeps track of students’ moods.

“Everyone is kind of looking out for you,” she said, noting friends will do the same thing. “A lot of teachers, if they see you are upset, they will ask you what’s going on.”

As Halligan told his story, photos of his son and others played on a loop on the screen next to him.

“What you have to understand is that the bystander is a bully, too,” he said. “If you chip away at the audience, you chip away at the bully. It’s peer pressure.

“You own this,” Halligan went on. “I beg you. Don’t be a bystander. Be an upstander.”

You can read Bill Toscano’s blog at poststar.com/blogs or his updates on Twitter, @billtoscano_ps.

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