Beyond Pride Month: The Lingering Problem Of Bullying


An interactive role-play simulation for educators builds understanding and appreciation for LGBTQ youth, and prepares users to lead real-life conversations with students.

Pride Month festivities conspire to create the impression of generalized wellbeing in the sexual minority universe. Would that it were true. Reality is still very harsh for young people, especially considering the incidence and effects of school bullying. According to data from the CDC’s 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey released last summer, 34% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students in grades 9-12 were bullied on school property, 28% were electronically bullied, and 13% did not go to school because of safety concerns during the survey’s 12-month study period. And these grim statistics get grimmer. Nearly 43% of LGB youth seriously considered suicide compared to 15% of heterosexual youth; and 9% made a suicide attempt that required the attention of a medical professional, more than quadruple their heterosexual classmates.

Every day, these young people go to school where their teachers and other school staff set the tone for whether or not they are treated with respect. In a study from 2015, GLSEN researcher Emily Greytak concluded that there are three things that predict whether a teacher will intervene with anti-LGBT bullying: 1) knowing an LGBT person, 2) understanding the challenges that LGBT students face, and 3) having the self-confidence to intervene. But the question remains, how do we create the conditions such that all teachers will meet those criteria?

One unexpected answer? Practice with “virtual” students. Schools and districts in 10 states (red, blue and purple) across the U.S. have discovered a 30-minute online program where school personnel “meet” three virtual student coaches who introduce themselves and the challenges they face in school with anti-LGBT bullying and harassment (check off criteria 1 and 2). Then, as in a role-playing videogame, educators take on the role of a high school biology teacher who needs to address incidents of bullying in her classroom and reach out to the student who has been harassed.

Educators and staff participate at home or school from their own computers, so it’s a private learning experience. They can also try out both good and bad conversation strategies to see what works and what doesn’t—and there’s no one there to judge or make you feel embarrassed if you make a mistake. Try ignoring students’ use of biased language or asking the bullied student to “just try to fit in,” however, and you’ll receive a gentle but firm correction from the virtual student coaches.

There is mounting research indicating that real people learn better from virtual ones. Recent research on this anti-bullying program—Kognito’s Step In, Speak Up!—demonstrates that even after several months, educators show increased self-confidence to intervene—both with the students who are doing the bullying and with the students who are being bullied. (Check off criteria number 3). And they do, in fact, intervene more often and more consistently.

As Pride Month draws to a close, it’s a good time to think about what we can do to empower schools to create safer and more supportive learning environments for sexual minority and gender nonconforming students. The answer may change a life—or even save one.