Ten years ago, a school district near Richmond asked for Gerard Lawson’s help with suicide prevention programming following a string of suicides.
Now, Lawson, a counselor education professor at Virginia Tech, and a team of students and faculty in the School of Education are continuing to help schools across the state by collecting data.
Initially, the district was looking for suicide prevention training. Lawson, who is a past-president of the American Counseling Association, was happy to help, but he had some ideas of his own.

“We said there's a lot more that we can do if we're able to do a little bit of research along the way to figure out what's really happening here,” Lawson said.

Lawson’s research effort came to the attention of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, and then Lawson’s team was invited to incorporate their research into an annual statewide survey of secondary school students, teachers, and staff.

The team now is part of the process of creating and editing survey questions, analyzing data, and making data accessible to the schools for the past four years. This year the survey focuses on middle schools, and in even numbered years  its focus is high schools.

“Our initial effort is going to be looking at some of the mental health issues in the schools, both with students, instructors, and non instructional staff, and looking at how the pandemic has influenced some indicators of mental health,” said David Kniola, a researcher on the team, and assistant professor of practice in educational research and evaluation with the School of Education.

The survey went to schools in late December and will close in late February. The team expects between 200,000-300,000 responses from students, and another 60,000-80,000 from teachers and staff. Once the responses are back, the Virginia Tech team will get to work with crunching the data before the survey results are released to the public.

“It's a lot of questions. It takes around 30 to 45 minutes for each person to complete. And then we get a lot of data once the entire surveys are being completed by all the schools in Virginia,” said Hulya Dogan, a computer science doctoral student and a member of the research team.

A large part of this data crunching is focused on making the information as accessible as possible to Virginia schools.

“We don't assume that anybody needs or has any heavy duty statistics background because that's not really what they're there for,” Lawson said. “That's our job, to take this data and make it accessible for them.”

Lawson also said this research is suited well to his team because of the diversity of fields represented in the group.

“I have learned so much from my colleagues throughout this process,” Lawson said. “I have the luxury of being able to stay at the 30,000-foot view and to be sure that things are getting done when they need to get done, but then occasionally I am able to stop and dig into the data and to really try to understand what is it that we're looking at and how do we make the process better.”

However, he thinks the Virginia Tech mission is a bigger portion of why this research is important.

“It's also a good fit with the land grant mission that isn't interested in just generating research that's going to be in a journal article and sit on a shelf somewhere,” Lawson said, “We do that part of it so that we can get the message out to professional colleagues as well through those sorts of outlets.”

By Alexandra Krens