Bullying on middle school campuses affects a minority of students, "but for that small percentage it's an overwhelming and regular occurrence that can really drive them to the point of despair," Milliken said in a Tuesday panel discussion that was broadcast live on the public-access channel of the Midpeninsula Media Center.
"The majority of bullying victims don't come forward," Milliken said. "With such low reporting rates, sometimes we don't get access to the incidents as we'd like.
Even when they do report incidents, victims and their parents often want guarantees of anonymity, making it harder for officials to impose consequences on alleged perpetrators, he said.
"You really can't approach bullies using generalities and just talk about being respectful with their peers.
"If we get over that hump (of reporting), we do have the framework in place so we can provide disciplinary consequences and get fully involved in a situation," Milliken said.
"There have been multiple cases where we've used that framework with great effectiveness."
If a bullying incident is reported, administrators typically will try to confirm it with other witnesses before going to the alleged perpetrator.
"We try to make sure we're identifying the issue in a way that protects the reporter's confidentiality," Milliken said.
In surveys, "most students report not having been bullied in the last year," he said.
"At the same time, a good 4 percent to 5 percent report they've been bullied weekly or more."
It's important to "acknowledge both realities," he said.
Milliken was one of four panelists in the hour-long discussion moderated by Philippe Rey, executive director of the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) of Palo Alto.
Other panelists were ACS Director of On-Campus Counseling Roni Gillenson; Mountain View therapist Erin Rosenblum; and Anthony William Ross, program director of Outlet, a Mountain View nonprofit organization aimed at empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Rosenblum said victims sometimes don't report bullying incidents — even to their parents — because "they think there's something wrong with them, that they're being bullied for a reason. They're ashamed, and they don't want to tell their parents because they might be judged the same way."
Signs that a child is being bullied could include missing property, unexplained scrapes, avoidance of school or usual routes to school and withdrawing from friends, panelists said.
Milliken said what worries him most are "the bulk of cases" that don't come to the attention of school officials.
"For us, the issue is making sure we have a culture in place and an educated staff who know what to look for and know how to intervene when they see and hear things. The bulk of our work is creating a culture where 'bystanders' become 'upstanders.'"
Most of the bullying on middle school campuses is verbal or social rather than the cyberbullying more prevalent in high schools, Milliken said.
Bullying among boys tends to be "more physical, more yelling and more aggressive," Gillenson said.
Among girls, it involves "more emotional manipulation and shunning," she said.
Social networks have transformed bullying from a phenomenon limited to the school grounds to something that, "from a target's vantage point, can feel like bullying 24/7," Milliken said.
"It now can take place at home, on the way home, on the weekends."
Panelists urged victims to confide in an adult at their school whom they trust.
"All three of us (Palo Alto middle school principals) take student safety, emotional and physical well-being as our top priority," Milliken said.
"Students in this situation (of being bullied) can't learn. They need to be safe; they need to be in a respectful environment. And it's something that absolutely needs to be brought to the attention of school administrations."
Milliken said every one of Palo Alto's 12 elementary schools has some kind of character-education program in place to support student social-emotional well-being and encourage a respectful school culture.
"It's our hope, now that every school has been doing something for at least a year, that over time we'll see a cumulative effect and a tidal shift in school culture."
Tuesday's panel discussion was co-sponsored by ACS, Foundation for a College Education, Community Health Awareness Council, Outlet and Youth Community Service. The discussion will be rebroadcast on Comcast Channel 28 as well as streamed live over the Midpeninsula Media Center website (www.midpenmedia.org) concurrently Dec. 9 at 11 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 9 p.m.