Parents of young suicide victims band together to save kids

DESOTO COUNTY, Miss. — On average, there are 123 suicides per day in the United States. Some students are resorting to taking their own life as a solution to bullying.

A group of parents share a connection that keeps them crusading for change in DeSoto County, Mississippi and beyond.

"As a parent who has lost a child to suicide, the last thing we want to see is some new members join our club," said John Halligan, who lost his son to bullying.

It's the loss that has led Halligan from Vermont to DeSoto County — and across the country to speak to children.

Halligan will share his son Ryan's story in August with Desoto County students. Ryan was one of the first cyberbullying victims.

For Ryan it was jokes about his sexuality that pushed him over the edge — classmates calling him gay, then a summer romance with a girl that turned out to be a prank pushed him to end his pain.

"She ended up pretending to like him online, then told him at the start of the 8th grade it was all a joke and he was just a loser," Halligan said.

"On his very last day he went up to her and told her 'It's girls like you that make me want to kill myself,' and he ended up doing that."

For Halligan, everything happened so fast.

"It completely blindsided us as parents," he said.

Now he wants to make sure no other parent is left standing in his shoes.

Halligan plans to make noise in Mississippi to help keep Andy Leach's voice raised. The 12-year-old ended his life after his parents say he was bullied in Desoto County.

"The kids that did this, nothing is going to happen to them, not even a slap on the wrist," said Cheryl Hudson, Andy Leach's mom.

Hudson still gets choked up just thinking about March 6 — the day Andy decided enough was enough.

"My son was made fun of for his shoes, his clothes, his sexuality," she said. "He was spit on, he was pushed on in the bathrooms. It was terrible."

Despite the torture she says her only closure comes from saving children who may be considering suicide as a way out.

"My son would have to be the one to testify, and he's not here to do it," she said. "If we can just save one child from it then we are winning."

DeSoto County Schools says they are working to bring change to their district.

"We've had conversations with our legislator about support we would like to have when it comes to anti-bullying programs," a district spokesperson said. "We've asked our legislators for help to get more school resource officers."

From the tragedy that connects the Halligans and Hudsons, the same heartbreak that introduced Hudson to Patti Herrington, a mother who was already deep in the fight against bullying after losing her son Conner the very same way.

"That day changed my world forever," said Patti Herrington, founder of Firefly.

Herrington lost her son Conner in August 2011, when he committed suicide. She says there were no signs.

"Went in the kitchen put the groceries down and walked in his room, and that is when I found him and that is when my world shattered."

She wanted to throw in the towel and wallow in the depth of despair, but then she saw a light.

"I felt I could lay down and die and give up, or I could make this my life mission to reach these young kids," she said.

She founded Firefly, a non-profit that focuses on putting a stop to bullying. She's now teamed up with Hudson and they both have their sights on saving young
people in DeSoto County.

"It's a hard way to lose a child, I think the worst way," Herrington said.

Firefly is working to get bullies to realize the weight of their actions and to push anyone teeter tottering with the idea of suicide into a positive space.

It's a tough pill to swallow but all three parents think students need to be faced with the reality of what bullying can cause as well as the heartache, the grief and the destruction that lingers far beyond the loss of a young life.

Now all these parents are left holding is the memories of their children — and the hope that no other parent will bear the pain of joining their circle.