The hesitance of bullying victims to report incidents leads to a Catch 22 in addressing the problem of school bullying, the principal of Jordan Middle School said Tuesday night.
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," Principal Michael Milliken said.
Milliken spoke in a panel discussion, "Breaking the Stigma: Bullying," that was broadcast live on the public access channel of the Midpeninsula Media Center.
"The majority of bullying victims don't come forward," he 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 and saying "'multiple sources have shared that they witnessed this behavior.'
"We try to make sure we're identifying the issue in a way that protects the reporter's confidentiality," Milliken said.
In surveys of secondary students and parents, "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.
"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.'
"While we can comfortably handle the majority of cases that come to our attention, it's the bulk of the cases that don't come to our attention that worry me."
Most of the bullying on middle school campuses is "verbal or social bullying" rather than the cyberbullying more prevalent in high schools, Milliken said.
Bullying among boys tends to be "more physical, more yelling and more aggressive," said panelist Roni Gillenson, ACS director of on-campus counseling.
Among girls, bullying involves "more emotional manipulation and shunning," Gillenson said.
Social networks have transformed bullying from a "school-specific phenomenon" to something that, "from a target's vantage point, can feel like bullying 24/7," Milliken said.
"Instead of just at school, it now can take place at home, on the way home, on the weekends."
Panelists urged victims to confide in "a trusted adult" at their school.
"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."
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 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."
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 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.
The event was co-sponsored by ACS, Foundation for a College Education, Community Health Awareness Council, Outlet and Youth Community Service.