Confidentiality Guidelines

Confidentiality is one of the main ethical considerations for school counselors. How do we maintain students' trust, but still do what we can to keep students safe and parents informed? How do laws and ethics co-exist? Here are some basic questions and answers on this topic for school counselors.

1. What exactly is confidentiality, and how is it different from legal privilege?

I like the definition given in a 2002 article in the Journal of Professional School Counseling:

“Confidentiality is a professional’s promise or contract to respect clients’ privacy by not disclosing anything revealed during counseling, except under agreed upon conditions.”

Legal privilege is different. While confidentiality in school counseling is an ethical term, legal privilege is (obviously) a legal term. Whenever there’s a struggle between ethics and the law, the law always prevails. Legal privilege is given to attorneys, doctors, and licensed professional counselors, among others. But in many states, school counselors are certified rather than licensed, so legal privilege doesn’t apply.

2. Does that mean there’s really no such thing as confidentiality for minor students? How does this differ for minors, parents of minors, and adults in general?

There is still such a thing as confidentiality for minors, but there are certain legal exceptions that must be considered. For instance, when it comes to informed consent (such as consent for the student to see the school counselor, or consent for a student to join a school support group), FERPA laws say that until a student is 18, the parents have the right to give or deny consent.

3. So a school counselor can’t see a minor student without parental consent?

A parent can specifically forbid a minor student to see the school counselor, or specifically forbid the counselor to work with a minor student. But as long as the parent hasn’t stated that specifically, school counseling is considered a regular educational service provided by the school, so legally the counselor can see a minor student without parent consent. (See the PDF version of this page below for more detailed information.)

4. Who is actually the school counselor’s “client?” The minor student, or the parents?

Even with the legal issues involved, from an ethical standpoint, the school counselor’s client is the student. This is one of the first things discussed in the Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2004). The parents’ needs are considered, but the needs of the students come first, above all others.

Here’s another excerpt from the same JPSC article: “In attempting to weigh their legal and ethical obligations, it is helpful for school counselors to clearly identify those they consider to be "clients."

"School counselors are part of an educational community. As such, they consult with teachers, administrators, and parents. It is important for school counselors to clarify that their consultation is on behalf of students and that only the students are their clients (except if school counselors offer counseling to students' families).”

5. What are the limits of confidentiality for school counselors?

Ethically, school counselors are required to take appropriate action if students engage in behavior that presents clear and imminent danger to themselves and others. Legally, they're required to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect, and they're also required to respond to subpoenas and participate in other legal proceedings dictated by the courts.

(For more detailed information, please read the PDF version of this article, available below.)

6. How can I be proactive and prevent problems with confidentiality?

The best way to prevent problems is to provide the student and the parents with information about confidentiality before the school year begins, and keep the information visible and available at all times.

I would recommend posting your school's guidelines in various places before the school year begins -- in the student handbook, on the counseling department's web page, on flyers in your office, at the first meeting between the counselor and each student.

7. How do I prepare a student if I need to reveal information?

When you do encounter a situation where you need to notify a parent, CPS, your administrator, or someone else, here are some suggestions, and things to keep in mind:

– If you feel it necessary to share confidential information, let the student know ahead of time that you plan to do it, and what you plan to say.

– Sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be. If the issue is something borderline, meaning that you may need to call a parent, but you aren’t sure yet, ask the student, “Do you mind if I talk with one of your parents about that?” Sometimes students don’t mind at all, and will say, “Go ahead – it’s fine with me.”

– Assure parents from the beginning, whether in writing or directly, that you will let them know if their students are in harm’s way. Most often, that’s what parents really want to know.

– If you need to reveal information to parents, encourage the student to make the call from your office (you dial, and be sure you’re actually talking with the parent, then hand the phone over to the student or put the call on speaker phone), to be present for the call, or to meet with you and the parents together.

– If you’re still unsure about what to do, consult, consult, and consult. Then take the action you think is best, and document everything, including your consultation conversations and conversations with parents.

(Again, for more detailed suggestions, see the PDF article below).

8. What does a school counseling confidentiality policy look like?

Click on the PDF version of this article below to find samples of:

– A signature sheet you could have students sign when they meet you individually for the first time, or a statement that could be put into a student handbook, or on the guidance web page for your school (minus the signature lines on the web page).

– A flyer you could post in your office (preferably in more than one place) to remind students about confidentiality guidelines and exceptions.

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Here's the link for the PDF version of this article, Confidentiality Guidelines For School Counselors, and here's the link to the longer version, which includes the very detailed (and helpful) article from the Journal of Professional School Counseling, Confidentiality Guidelines For School Counselors -- Longer Version.

Hope these are helpful!

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