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Our boy’s bullying hell

Gemma and Brian Langan are pictured at their home last week.?
Gemma and Brian Langan are pictured at their home last week.?Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Our boy’s bullying hell

Westport parents go public after 14 year old targeted by hate campaign

Neill O’Neill

HARRY LANGAN is 14 years old and has been the victim of a sustained and vicious campaign of bullying for the past eight months. This week, his despairing parents are taking the unusual step of going public about this ordeal, in the hope that it will clear his name. They also wish to highlight the inadequacies in Irish law that they feel facilitate cowards to continue abuse like that perpetrated on their son, and take from the bully the ability to masquerade as their young son.
Harry has not been the victim of bullying in the traditional sense. It does not happen in the school yard, on the bus, on the streets of his native Westport, on a sporting field or near his home. Rather, Harry has been bombarded with an incessant barrage of sickening text messages, and even worse, dozens of other people, in Mayo and beyond, have received inflammatory and indecent text and picture messages, which are signed off as being from Harry Langan.
As the litany of abusive and vile messages continue to be sent to Harry’s phone, and to other, seemingly hand-picked unsuspecting strangers, purporting to be from him, Brian and Gemma Langan now feel there is no option but to highlight what has been a plague on their family, in the hope that it is not happening, and won’t happen, to anybody else. At this stage the Gardaí, Ireland’s mobile phone operators and even the Government are involved, and the Langans feel there is nothing to lose by making their plight known.
It began in November 2011 and though there have been some lulls in activity, the abuse has been fairly regular since. Some of the taunts seem like typical adolescent anger or even envy, others however are far more disparaging, cruel and even heinous. Unbeknownst to the bully(s), some months back Harry’s phone was taken from him by his parents but left active. The abuse continued and was monitored. The family feel it is okay to reveal this now, as they are confident that the intense Garda investigation is moving in the right direction.
The culprit(s) may face public humiliation and criminal prosecution and may even need protection themselves according to sources close to the family, such is the widespread outrage at this sordid campaign of hatred. However, right now, all that is secondary to the concern of Harry’s parents. The Mayo News first became involved in this affair last March, and have used all available influences to aid the investigation in the intervening period. After consultation with the lead investigating officer on the case, The Mayo News has withheld this story for some time. But with the school year due to finish this week, and the Gardaí now making good progress following a clever and covert operation, the time to allow the Langans to speak has come.
“We do care about the investigation but our primary concern is not to get a prosecution for this, for the past seven months our son’s life has been hell, our lives have been hell, and we want it to stop,” said Gemma Langan. “Harry is just 14, yet he has to be with someone all the time if he is in town. It’s coming into summer now and we don’t want him to be afraid to go town, or go play sports. He has to look over his shoulder all the time and doesn’t know who to trust.”
Harry is the eldest of Brian and Gemma’s three children, and the ordeal is taking its toll on all their lives. It is with cruel irony then that the young family are also fighting a battle of an altogether different kind, as Brian was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis five years ago, when he was just 29. He admits that finding the energy to battle on several fronts is affecting his health adversely.
“Harry is my number one priority,” he said. “I’m all too aware that children experiencing similar circumstances have harmed themselves and I’m just glad we became aware of this and intervened before he began to believe the nonsense being communicated to him. He is like any other teenager, but nobody should have to put up with this.
“Every week people are coming up to him in a menacing way saying ‘why are you texting my girlfriend, or my sister or my mother and saying that sick stuff to her?’, and every time he has to defend himself and explain that it is not him. We want to take away from the bully the ability to pretend he is Harry, and want everyone to know that it is not Harry that is sending these texts.
“We want our son to have his life back. He is not a pervert or any of the other things he is being made out to be. We want this known before something happens that ruins all our lives forever.”
The messages are coming from several numbers, though two or three have been used since the start and are the main phone numbers used. When conventional tracing methods failed, Gardaí and mobile phone operators began a complex new investigation to trace the sender.
Harry cannot use Facebook anymore, as his account was hacked and vandalised. Closing it down proved difficult. A derogatory Bebo account was also set up in his name several months ago.
Inflammatory messages were also sent to a member of the Travelling community living outside Mayo, claiming to be from Harry and boasting he had sexual relations with the deceased father of the recipient. This sparked the desired reaction, but Brian Langan was able to diffuse the situation before it got out of hand, and explained the true circumstances to the mob that were looking for his son.
On another occasion a man was contacted and propositioned by someone falsely claiming to be Harry Langan. When he contacted the number he was given, Brian Langan again had to explain the situation to the man, who was horrified to hear the truth and that he had been manipulated.
Instances like this, the Langans contend, show a sinister side to the actions of the culprit –something that goes far beyond adolescent bullying. On another recent occasion, when Harry and Brian went into a local shop, a text message was delivered within minutes to Harry’s old phone, and the sender let it be known that he was watching the pair.

Other families
The Langans live in the countryside, work hard (Brian runs his own business alongside his father, providing employment locally) and do everything that normal families do. They are like any other family, but hope no other family is going through a similar ordeal.
“Looking in from the outside you would not think this is dominating our lives,” said Gemma, “but you never know just what is going on in the house next door. Nobody needs to go through this and we urge all parents to talk to their children and make sure that everything is okay.
Some children are more forthcoming than others, but going through something like this on their own could be more than they can cope with. Being told such horrible things about yourself and lies about what the whole world thinks about you, day and night, will eventually break some kids down. After that it could be too late to do anything. “We are not putting ourselves in the public spotlight for attention, or for any other reason than to clear Harry’s name, but if by doing it we can save some other kid from falling foul of similar harassment or predatory behaviour, then it will have been even more worth it. But parents need to play their role. Talk to your kids, go through their phones if you have to. Believe me it’ll be worth it if they are going through hell like Harry.”

National implications
Anybody can walk into a mobile phone retailer and get a sim card (often for free), place it in a pay as you go phone and begin a campaign of abuse and hatred. Drug dealers, brothel operators and other criminals have free rein to run their operations this way, and are known to do so. The system and the law in Ireland permits it. As a result of the campaign against Harry Langan, a representation has been made to the Department of Communications calling for change in this area, and Minister of State at the Department of Sport and Tourism Michael Ring is fully behind the campaign.
“I have already written directly to Pat Rabbitte on this issue and I will be speaking to him personally on it too, the next time I see him,” he said. “We got a confirmation of acknowledgment back from the Department of Communications, so this issue is firmly now on their table and I won’t be letting it go away. I know of these untraceable phones and sim cards being owned by people who use them to contact radio stations but they are not prepared to put their name behind their opinions. When you get a TV licence or tax your car and for many other things you must give your name and address or even ID, yet the system allows criminal gangs all over Ireland to use these phones to conduct their illegal business. It is a serious issue and it has to be addressed.”
The Langans also intend to contact the Taoiseach’s office on the matter, but realise their concerns conflict with the desires of telecoms corporations.
“We understand that what we are looking for might not be to the desire of big telecommunications companies, but we are talking about protecting our children here, what could be more important than that,” said Brian Langan.
“The Gardaí have done a good job for us, all they could and more really, and while we have been constantly looking for updates they couldn’t always make progress because of the red tape they were coming up against in the system. How can the  custodians of society protect us when their work is being frustrated like this?” he asked. “In Harry’s case we were able to intervene before the tormenting got inside his head and he believed it, but some other parent may not be so lucky.
“Investigating bullying or any other crimes, even very serious ones, where the perpetrator can hide under a cloak of anonymity provided by a bizarre system which allows anybody to get as many mobile phone numbers as they want, without ever having to register them or show an ID, is leaving the whole system wide open for trouble. And it is causing trouble. Pat Rabbitte [Minister] and the Department of Communications needs to act now. This is not allowed to happen in other countries.”

“While all schools take bullying with the utmost seriousness, what are they to do when it affects one of their students outside the school grounds?” asks Gemma Langan. “The schools are not to blame in any of this, but it would be helpful for them if the Department of Education – or even the schools themselves at local and county level - established a system of communication to relay information where situations like Harry’s, or any other type of incident for that matter, are brought to their attention thus allowing them to act in unison on it. I’m not saying they don’t talk already, but if it was necessary to go through some formal procedure, it would be a useful tool in certain situations.”
However, a source working in education has told The Mayo News that a new cost-cutting measure coming into effect next year will see counsellors removed from all schools.
“Incidents like this only highlight the need for these services in schools,” said the source, “yet despite the advancements in technology which throw up previously unseen problems (and probably when they are needed more then ever) essential services like guidance counselling in schools are falling foul of the big hand of austerity.”

Anybody with information on this case is urged to contact Westport Garda Station, in total confidence, either in person or by calling 098 25555.

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