The audience wiped tears from their eyes as they heard John Halligan tell yet again of how his son Ryan, 13, committed suicide in 2003 because of bullying.
The Farmingdale father has told his story hundreds of times at schools on Long Island and elsewhere. Thursday, he was the keynote speaker at the Internet Safety & Bullying Prevention Conference held at Hofstra University. The conference was sponsored by the Long Island Youth Safety Coalition and drew a capacity crowd of about 320 participants - with 120 more would-be attendees left on a waiting list.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice pledged her office would hold more such conferences. Rice formed the coalition last year to address teen risks such as drunken driving, drugs and gang violence, and now, bullying and Internet safety - including cyberbullying and sexting.
School districts face a new law, to take effect in 2012, requiring anti-bullying programs with a trained coordinator.
Halligan, who now lives in Farmingdale, said he found some schools had strong anti-bullying programs, others barely any. "There're some people in schools where I speak who think I'm the program," he said.
The "key ingredient" in how seriously a district dealt with bullying, he said, was the attitude of its leadership, "all the way to the top, to the superintendent."
In 11 workshops, presenters talked about how to respond to bullying and encourage empathy.
Jeremy Shapiro, founder of the Cleveland-based youth violence prevention program Peacemakers, said educators have to counter students' internal justifications for bullying, or standing by while it occurs, rather than simply telling them not to do it.And, he said, anti-bullying prevention programs must target the taboo against "snitching," which, he said, only serves a bully's interests while being "a dagger to the maintenance of good order in the schools."
And, he said, educators must counteras well as the notion that a child who doesn't fight back somehow deserves what he gets.