How often does bullying happen in Palo Alto?

Tracking an elusive number

This story is part of an in-depth package of stories on the subject of bullying in Palo Alto schools. For links to all the stories, follow this link.

"If someone says bullying is not a problem in Palo Alto, I'd say: You need to look again," said Juliet Melamid, a marriage and family therapist and former director of FriendSmarts, a psycho-social treatment program for school-age children and teens located in Palo Alto. In the 12 years she ran the program, before moving to New York a year ago, Melamid saw an average of 60 children per week from Palo Alto and nearby communities in social-skills groups that ran for 12-week sessions. Several Palo Alto parents interviewed by the Weekly have children who attended FriendSmarts.

"Most of the kids coming into FriendSmarts dealt with some aspect of bullying," Melamid said. It affected every age in all variations, ranging from serious and everyday to less obvious and less frequent but still an issue. It was a "pervasive problem" with the students she worked with. For the kids who experienced it, bullying was "everything from excruciatingly painful to slightly damaging." Incidents Melamid remembered from the past few years included being locked in the bathroom, hit over the head with a lunch tray, picked on, teased or excluded in mean ways.

Melamid had high praise for how the Palo Alto schools generally dealt with these issues, experiencing school professionals as "good partners with parents." The middle school staff, she said, was particularly vigilant and caring: "really on top of things."

Other local counseling services have observed bullying issues with Palo Alto students as well. Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) Executive Director Philippe Rey told the Weekly that students are generally referred to his nonprofit for issues other than bullying (acting out, isolating themselves socially, excessive absences, falling grades, depression, etc.), and then in the course of therapy, bullying experiences can emerge as underlying issues.

"I hear a lot about relational bullying with the girls," one Adolescent Counseling Services middle school director said.

Another middle school director mentioned examples heard from students: "After school every day I'm getting hassled at my locker" or "He's threatening me as I walk home: 'You better watch out.'"

The Adolescent Counseling Services counselors interviewed agreed that while it is impossible to know from their vantage point the overall number of those bullied within the broader school population, they see the problem and its impacts often enough to view it as a serious issue.

"It has a lot of fallout, so yes, it is a serious issue, but how prevalent it is, I'm reluctant to speculate," one middle school counselor said.

According to Liz Schoeben, executive director of CASSY (Counseling and Support Services for Youth), which currently serves six Palo Alto elementary schools, peer issues (including bullying) top the list of concerns among students who saw CASSY's on-campus mental health counselors during the 2011-12 school year. In CASSY's annual report to the Palo Alto Unified School District, the "presenting issue" for 44 percent of the children seen was either "peer relationships" or "social skills." Schoeben estimates that at least half of the peer relationship cases (26 percent) involve bullying dynamics and that those needing support for social skills (18 percent) frequently are involved in bullying dynamics as well.

Most experts in the community -- educators, psychologists and parent leaders steeped in the issue -- estimate that the overall incidence of bullying and harassment in Palo Alto is about average or somewhat below that of other communities, although most are reluctant to put a number on it.

Erica Pelavin and Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, bullying-prevention educators and founders of Digital Tat2, said that bullying in Palo Alto tends to be more subtle and thus may be harder to detect.

"In a politically correct environment, where we feel as if we can't have racism, or we can't have homophobia, those go underground," Moskowitz-Sweet said. It's less likely to be said out loud but it turns up online.

Physical bullying, the most obvious, clear-cut form, is encountered at much lower rates in Palo Alto, experts agree.

"In terms of the prevalence of bullying in Palo Alto, I would say that it is probably comparable, if not a bit lower, than bullying within other communities," Parents Place psychologist and bullying prevention program director Holly Pedersen wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly."I think that while not perfect, this community has strong awareness of bullying and the need to include (social-emotional learning) in classroom curriculum, and this is an educated community that appreciates diversity for the most part. While the numbers in the research are all over the map depending on the study, the larger and more reputable studies on bullying have found that about 30 percent of kids are involved in bullying -- about 13-15 percent as the children who bully, about 10 percent as the targets and the remaining 5-7 percent being involved both as the bullying child and the target.

"The number of kids involved in cyber-bullying appears to be slightly higher. I think that the general public often misperceives the prevalence of bullying as being much higher than it actually is -- doesn't mean that bullying isn't a problem that needs attention, just that it is not an epidemic as some people describe it," Pedersen stated.

There are two sources of federally collected data on youth bullying, according to the website "" maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

• The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that, nationwide, 20 percent of students in grades 9-12 experienced bullying.

• The 2008--2009 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics) indicates that, nationwide, 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experienced bullying.

Bullying experts also point out that a large percentage of students who are not targets or aggressors are still impacted by the bullying dynamic when they are bystanders. According to Adolescent Counseling Services' Rey, these bystanders make up a majority of the student body in any school. Witnesses to bullying can lose their sense of security, which impacts learning and other aspects of student life, including mental health, according to Rey and national research.

National studies also show that a large percentage of bullying incidents go unreported, making bullying rates that much harder to pin down. Kevin Jennings, former assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, advised parents: "If you are a parent and your child tells you that they are being bullied, what you are hearing is the tip of the iceberg. If the kid is willing to talk to you about it, the problem is probably 10 times worse than they're telling you."

Palo Alto school district staff cites student surveys as an important indicator of low bullying rates in Palo Alto. One of the surveys, called Palo Alto Reality Check (PARC), is administered to all the middle schools each fall. District summaries of Reality Check data feature unusually low bullying rates; however, this is due in part to the fact that the district analysis uses the narrowest and most serious category of bullying, that which occurs once a week or more during the past 12 months. Other data for less frequent bullying is collected in the survey but is generally not included in the district's presentations of the data.

At the Feb. 12 school board meeting, district staff presented the 2012 PARC survey data to show that only 6 percent of students at JLS, 4.58 percent at Jordan and 5.73 percent at Terman were verbally bullied once a week or more in the past 12 months and that those rates had declined since 2008. Rates presented were lower for the other types of bullying surveyed (physically, social and cyber) at that level of frequency and had also generally declined.

Stanford University law and sociology professor Michele Dauber questioned the school district's conclusions about its survey data.

"When the definition includes acts occurring less frequently than once per week or more, then Palo Alto appears to have much higher rates of bullying that likely approximate the state and national norms for similar schools," Dauber wrote to the board in February.

Several of the Reality Check survey questions allow students to indicate if they have not been bullied at all during the past year. For 2011 and 2012, this data shows that between 50 and 60 percent of students fall into that category, with the rest reporting bullying somewhere along the frequency spectrum. In addition, about 40 percent report that they have never seen a student being bullied, indicating that about 60 percent have experienced the role of bystander.

A Weekly analysis of the Reality Check data obtained from the school district shows that of the 2,174 Palo Alto middle school students surveyed in fall 2012 who were asked about being bullied once or twice (or more) in the past 12 months, a total of 48 percent reported verbal bullying; 38 percent social bullying; 22 percent physical bullying; and 15 percent electronic bullying. (See bar graph.)

When asked about being bullied once a month (or more) during the past 12 months, the students' response was: 8.9 percent verbal bullying; 6.9 percent social bullying; 2.3 percent physical bullying; and 2.8 percent electronic bullying.

The survey questions defined verbal bullying as "tried to hurt your feelings -- called names, had mean things said to you, verbal threats"; social bullying as "purposefully left you out, refused to play or hang out with you, spoke behind your back, got others to not like you"; physical bullying as "hurt in any physical way -- hit, pushed, kicked, property damaged"; and electronic bullying as "email, text messages, phone, or Internet used to make you look bad to others."

A multitude of other Palo Alto survey data is available, including the California Healthy Kids Survey, the Sources of Strength survey (Gunn High School students only) and the Developmental Assets survey, all of which can be analyzed to conclude that Palo Alto falls somewhere on the scale from low to average in terms of its bullying rates, depending on how data is defined, selected and interpreted, and what it is compared to.

"I like data, but I think that data can really skew what is happening, and so it takes some really talented folks and it takes time to look at the data from a lot of different perspectives," Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston said. The data provides a "snapshot" that might be clear on that day but also could change a month later, he added.

Another way to look at bullying incidents is to examine how often they are actually reported in Palo Alto schools, keeping in mind that many incidents go unreported. According to Associate Superintendent Michael Milliken: "There could be 10 categories (in the Infinite Campus software system) that a staff member might pick for bullying-type behavior, depending on the context or what else happened during the course of the incident."

These categories include bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, disruption, roughhousing, teasing, caused or threatened physical injury, property damage, defied authority and "other." Also, each school follows its own unique and variably applied practices regarding which incidents warrant documentation, according to Milliken.

This is particularly true at the middle schools. At Jordan and Terman, for example, if the incident "is headed towards a disciplinary consequence," it is generally recorded, but otherwise it often is not, according to Milliken. At JLS, there is a wider net cast and a greater proportion of reported incidents recorded. Also, at Jordan bullying incidents often are referred for handling by an adult-coached, peer-mediated program (patterned after San Francisco nonprofit No Bully's non-disciplinary approach using what are called "solution teams," made up of the bullying student and several selected peers, not including the target). Those incidents are not recorded in the Infinite Campus data system, Milliken said. Jordan utilized about 15 such solution teams during the second semester of 2011-12 and another 15 during the first half of 2012-13, according to Milliken, who also noted that none of the incidents involved were "significant enough to require the school to use discipline," although discipline might have been used under more traditional approaches for some of the incidents. Jordan's Infinite Campus incident data thus does not reflect these incidents (numbering about 30) deferred for intervention under the "solution team" approach.

According to Infinite Campus data for the secondary schools provided to the Weekly by the district for all 10 categories listed by Milliken, the number of total incidents across these categories reflected the variance at the middle school level. For the first half of the 2012-13 school year, the number of such incidents recorded for JLS was 77; for Jordan 33; and for Terman 12 (note that Terman is a smaller school with about 750 students; there are 1,100 at JLS and Jordan). For 2011-12 the number at JLS was 174; at Jordan 154; and Terman 68. The year before (2010- 2011), 315 at JLS; 105 at Jordan; and 43 at Terman.

"Why some sites have more documented incidents than other ... has less to do with actual incidents of bullying and harassment between schools and more to do with recording practices," said Brenda Carrillo, district student-services coordinator.

There was less variation at the high schools. For the first half of 2012-13, Gunn recorded six incidents under bullying, harassment or sexual harassment and a total of 49 incidents in all the categories of misconduct provided, which may have included incidents involving "bullying-type behavior" according to Milliken. In that same time, Paly recorded four incidents under bullying, harassment or sexual harassment, and a total of 65 incidents in all the categories combined. For the year 2011-12, Gunn had 10 in the bullying/harassment categories and 105 overall; Paly had seven in the bullying/harassment categories and 113 overall.

The district currently provides no guidance on how documentation of bullying or harassment incidents at the middle and high schools should be kept, although that may be changing along with other policies and practices in the wake of the recent Office for Civil Rights report, according to district staff. Also, the district is planning to look at "ways to formalize collection of data at the elementary school level," Carrillo said. "We think that's really important."

Also showing variability among schools is the number of suspensions for these combined categories of misconduct. For 2011-12, for example, JLS showed three suspensions, Jordan 27, and Terman one. In the first half of the 2012-13 school year, JLS showed six; Jordan none; and Terman one.

At the high school level, for the first half of the 2012-13 school year, Gunn showed 11 suspensions and Paly seven; in 2011-12, Gunn showed 16 and Paly 17.

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Like this comment
Posted by Edmund Burke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 7:56 am

This story reports the systematic under-reporting of bullying and discriminatory harassment by principals. This may in part be because school principals are evaluated to some extent on the safety of the school. There are many incentives to report low rates of bullying to the public.

One example stands out:

During the first half of 2012-13, when the "rape culture" sexual harassment was alleged to have occurred, this story reports that "Paly recorded four incidents under bullying, harassment or sexual harassment." The sexual harassment reported in the Verde involved dozens of incidents and resulted in a student who had been sexually assaulted and subsequently harassed by peers in retaliation for her report. That student was so harassed she ended up leaving Paly. Yet during that period there were only a total of 4 incidents of any bullying or harassment reported. This suggests that perhaps the Paly sexual harassment incident was never reported or recorded as such.

This conclusion is bolstered by the fact, reported somewhere in this series but not tied together here, that PAUSD's Uniform Complaint Procedures log is virtually empty for the past 7 years, suggesting that the Paly sexual harassment episodes were not recorded as such.

Paly's principal, Phil Winston, by way of explanation, says ""I like data, but I think that data can really skew what is happening." This statement is nonsense and that is in part why the district must follow state law and use standard criteria and use the UCP as required to create a log and paper trail so that parents can track incidents at their schools, and compare schools to each other meaningfully.

Uniform, district wide reporting is required by state law in accordance with the UCP. One of the chief reasons for the use of the UCP is to prevent this kind of book-cooking by principals and schools with incentives to try to report low rates of bullying to the public.

Like this comment
Posted by Burkean
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:14 am

Thanks EB. I appreciate you pointing out important nuggets from these stories because there is too much information at one time in all this to really grasp and some things are in one place. But I think describing the under reporting as "systematic" might be giving the schools too much credit. It's more like random. And I guess that either way that's why we need this UCP. Thanks again.

Like this comment
Posted by Look at the Data
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:21 am

I don't understand this community. We have people demanding ZERO bullying/harassment in our schools?! Name a public school district of our size which can claim zero bullying/harassment. It's not possible! And the OCR complaints are only because we have intellectual parents who are capable of filing such complaints. Think of Oakland, San Jose, etc. districts - I'll bet those parents don't file OCR complaints when they should.

The article states a program had 60 students per week who were victims of bullying. There are approximately 11,000 students in PAUSD.

And for the questionnaire to ask middle school students if they have been "bullied" in an entire year?! And post that it's 48%? I too, can think of at least one rude comment/behavior towards me in this past year.

I have an LD child and we have had issues with bullying 4-5 times and have been pleased with PAUSD administration.

This whole "bullying in PAUSD" is overblown and people are demanding unattainable goals.

Like this comment
Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:31 am

Look at the Data,

I think you are misunderstanding the comments and controversy. No one is saying achieving zero bullying is a realistic goal. In fact, I don't hear anyone saying that the schools aren't doing great things to try and teach kids about bullying and try to keep it from occurring.

The issue is what should be a school's response when serious bullying DOES happen. That is where the district has let us all down and the focus needs to be on improving the manner of responding, keeping good data on these cases, and then evaluating how we did. There is simply ZERO accountability because there is ZERO transparency. That is the culture of PAUSD and has been for at least the last two administrations. Sad but true.

Like this comment
Posted by Seema
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:50 am

According to a lot of anecdotal evidence, Jordan has had a bullying problem, including bullying by some teachers, especially those who teach PE, since 1991.

In spite of the fact that it is anecdotal, and in light of the fact of what is happening there now, I think there is much, much more bullying in PAUSD, especially at the middle school level, than is reported.

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:51 am

What concerned me the most about this article is how many different programs we have at our schools and how many different definitions there are for bullying and for recording issues.

PAUSD needs ONE centralized, consistent program which includes consistent reporting, consistent language with one program, one support group and one way of measuring it.

Site based decision making should not be allowed for this topic.

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:56 am

Seema - I had two kids go thru Jordan, one under an old principal and one under Dr. Miliken, The whole school atmosphere was totally different and much more positive under Michael Miliken. Less bullying including by teachers (although there are still a few). Before Miliken, the kids were "guilty until proven innocent" some of the administration seemed to enjoying catching kids misbehaving. That changed and kids were expected to behave and generally rose to the occasion. The other big difference was the visibility of the staff, including Milliken, during lunch time. Kids are much less likely to misbehave in any way if there are visible adults nearby.

Like this comment
Posted by Look at the Data
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Former Paly Parent: The other threads have posters [portion removed] that "our children are suffering" and imply they want zero bullying.

Paly Parent: I completely agree. Milliken was a fantastic principal and when we reported bullying, he clamped down. Belmont is fortunate to have him as Superintendent.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

We've been really happy with Jordan administration and staff and I've had two children recently attend Jordan who are now at Paly.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Our kids were at Jordan 6 years ago --- even going back that far may not be an accurate portrait of the campus climate. Many faces have changed both at the school, the BoE and PAUSD. Don't want to minimize the issues of the past, but I think going beyond 5 years isn't going to be an accurate measurement of the issues of today.

Like this comment
Posted by parent of LD student
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Ymmv. I lobbied hard to get my second child into JLS, so he wouldn't have the same miserable experience my daughter did under Miliken's leadership, with Chris Grierson as her teacher. I wasn't able to get him away from Jordan, as we are neither well-connected, nor wealthy enough for private school. As it turns out, Gregory Barnes is now principal, and under him the whole tone of the place has changed for the better! More relaxed, friendlier, more helpful.

The only bullying issue my son had was once when he was cornered by a group of bigger, older boys in the gym, and taunted with homosexual epithets, as they moved in to attack. He handled it himself. I'm not going to say how because something tells me this crowd is unlikely to approve:) I wouldn't have advised him to handle it the way he did but it worked, as he hasn't been bothered since. Unfortunately, it is hard to get middle schoolers to go to adults for help, as being labeled a snitch just gains them worse bullying. So, when a child is brave enough to tell, as the children did in the OCR cases, they need to be helped, and it has to apply to the children of ALL families, not just the right, well-connected, insider families. That is what surprised me the most about the recent article on bullying -- that they mentioned the taboo subject of Palo Alto's insider families. I should know. I used to be a Palo Alto insider mom, by virtue of lots of volunteer work in the schools but lost my insider card when I had to go back to work. Dealings with the school sure were rosier on the other side.

Like this comment
Posted by Not True!
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

No, one does not need to be an "insider" to get help from the schools. That's complete B.S. I'm no "insider" and the staff and administration has helped our family plenty. Milliken was good, Barnes is better.

Like this comment
Posted by Not every teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 7:48 pm

You don't have to be an insider, but it sure helps. Having a lawyer helps as well, that much has been proven.

Like this comment
Posted by MyKids@jordan
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 17, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Michael Miliken was a fantastic Principal @Jordan. He invited parents to join his "Coffee with Me" meeting at least once a month. He always stayed outside to watch kids getting onto buses after school. He is a highly visible and responsible person while he was @Jordan.

Like this comment
Posted by Dad2Luke
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:37 pm

Dear Look at the Data,
Parents in San Jose Unified School District file OCR complaints. At least I have. Schools have problems with the bullying of disabled kids, and it is far easier to look the other way than to stop the Lord of the Flies that happens at recess.

Like this comment
Posted by Not every teacher
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:42 pm

And now we are San Jose. We are Palo Alto, we are special.

Like this comment
Posted by parent of LD student
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 18, 2013 at 8:28 am

@Not true: as I said, ymmv (your mileage may vary). That's nice for you that you got such help at Jordan. That does not make my experience untrue. When I was an insider, I was able to use that to learn the ropes about "how to" get many things done, and not just at Jordan, so I didn't have to be lucky. As to the specifics given about how "fantastic" Milliken was, the principals at other schools my children have been to also held monthly coffees, and yes, were seen outside watching kids get on buses. (My daughters memory of being "welcomed" the first day to Jordan by Mr. Milliken was him standing watch that no one get on the grass but not actually greeting anyone:/) Perhaps he was better than the previous principal. I wouldn't know as we had no kids there then. My experiences with him were mediocre at best. LOVE the climate changes with Mr. Barnes!

Like this comment
Posted by If he's so great...
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 19, 2013 at 2:16 pm

If mr Milliken was so great as a principal at Jordan, why is he still referred to as "Mumbles Milliken"?

Like this comment
Posted by Not so great
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I don't know about the mumbles reference, but no, Michael Milliken was not so great. He was pretty good, though.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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