Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 14, 2013

How often does bullying happen in Palo Alto?

Tracking an elusive number

by Terri Lobdell

"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.

"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.

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.

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. " 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."

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.

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 on page 22.)

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.

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."

Editor's note: An expanded version of this story appears on PaloAltoOnline.com.

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