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The national conversation on bullying of LGBTQ youth seems to have quieted down in recent years. With many gains toward full equality under the law, you wouldn't be alone in assuming this was becoming a problem of the past. But despite the decline in visibility, as the outcome of this election has shown us, our youngest community members remain as vulnerable as ever to unacceptable harassment and bullying.
The truth is that LGBTQ youth have still been struggling-- even under a receptive Obama administration -- and we can reasonably expect those struggles to remain or get worse if we don't step in. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey released earlier this year, sexual minority students still have a higher prevalence of bullying both on and off school property as well as a higher incidence of many health-risk behaviors compared with straight students. Though the CDC's national report did not document the experiences of trans or gender-nonconforming students, some states do obtain this information, and it should be no surprise that these outcomes are exacerbated for so many youth in our community living at the intersections of race, class, and gender.
Yet it is clear that teachers and staff feel ill-equipped to intervene to stop the harassment or its consequences. Many school personnel admit they aren't comfortable discussing LGBTQ-related topics. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing. They don't know how to initiate conversations to help individual students or reduce bullying in the classroom. Many aren't familiar with other challenges these members of our community face, from homelessness to thoughts of suicide. Nor are they familiar with relevant support services.
When working as a trainer for several LGBTQ nonprofits including the Trevor Project, I presented hundreds of LGBTQ 101 workshops across the country to teach school employees how to be more supportive. It was often difficult to measure which strategies were the most effective in moving people from awareness of the problem (changing hearts and minds) to action (changing behaviors). I also realized that providing face-to-face training to large numbers of schools in a timely manner would require significantly more resources than were available.
I was intrigued when I was asked to consult on the development of an online simulation using role-play conversations to help K-12 faculty and staff to practice techniques for creating a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ students. I had hesitations about presenting a digital interaction rather than a personal one, but I was willing to explore the possibilities.
The result was Step In, Speak Up!, a 30-minute interactive experience developed by health simulation company Kognito. The program places the user in a high school where they hear from virtual LGBTQ students about the challenges they face. Then the user assumes the role of an educator who observes an anti-LGBTQ harassment incident and practices intervening with a coach who provides personalized feedback. Another conversation allows the user to assess a virtual student for suicide risk and connect that student to help. That is especially relevant for LGBTQ youth, who because of the treatment they receive remain at a disproportionately higher risk for suicide -- four times more likely than straight and/or cisgender youth.
In all cases, the learner controls the conversation by choosing various options from a navigation menu. It's advantageous to the user that these programs allow them to role-play without the anxiety of doing it in front of a crowd of their peers, as they might in a real-life professional development training.
In a national pilot study of over 2,400 users, 98.6 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that all staff in their facility should take the course, and 95 percent indicated they would recommend the training to a colleague.
In a three-month follow-up survey, 50 percent reported an increase in the number of students they identified as having been teased, harassed, or bullied. Roughly the same number indicated an increase in the number of students connected to support services, the number of follow-ups after class, the number of students approached because they used discriminatory language, and intervention for LGBTQ students who were being teased, harassed, or bullied.
Similar results have been reported with Kognito's LGBTQ on Campus, a companion simulation suite for college students, faculty and staff. These outcomes encouraged me to join Kognito, where I work today.
These results show the power of conversation to change attitudes, skills, and behaviors. One educator commented that she liked the fact that teachers can be "caring adults" and advocate respect no matter what their personal beliefs/feelings are, which is an invaluable lesson as we face the next four years.
Another plus for the LGBTQ safe schools movement is that online simulations help to decrease the disparity of regional support and resources for educating school faculty and staff on the needs of their LGBTQ students. These simulations are accessible to educators everywhere. Current users range from New York City and the Los Angeles Unified School District to Fairfax County, Va.; Shelby County, Tenn.; Hawaii; the entire states of Ohio and Arkansas; and more.
The bottom line -- as the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Leadership LAB has shown with its canvassing conversations regarding homophobia and transphobia -- is that conversations work. We can and should continue to show up in person to have these conversations, but we must also take advantage of research-driven approaches that we can scale on a national level and use to create lasting behavior change. New tools like Kognito's simulations hold exciting potential for moving us beyond safe spaces to having entire schools and communities that understand and embrace their LGBTQ students.
Harnessing this potential is imperative because queer youth still face this treatment in their homes, communities, and faraway buildings where policies affecting their lives are made -- as when adults insist that transgender students are not who they say they are, leaving them susceptible to physical and emotional harm. Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court, or with an openly hostile vice president, we retain so much power -- through conversations like these -- to show up for LGBTQ youth who need us.
The changes in support we've seen for queer students through simulations like Step In, Speak Up! and LGBTQ on Campus demonstrate how simple we can make this process for allies in our schools. Use of these simulations grows each day, showing a clear willingness by school personnel to stop ignoring the conversation simply because of their inexperience with the subject. Knowledge is growth, and growth is approaching hard conversations about the experiences of LGBTQ people and other important subjects -- with an open mind and a developed dialogue. Results show that Kognito can support you in doing this well, helping you manifest a more supportive climate where students can live proudly.
WES NEMENZ is the senior strategist, LGBTQ programs, for the health simulation company Kognito. He formerly worked in multiple education manager capacities with the Trevor Project, served as safe school and youth services coordinator with the Long Island GLBT Services Network, and held a communications fellow position with Equality North Carolina.