Ethical Questions to Consider -- Part 1 of 5

These questions address some common “gray areas” in legal and ethical areas of public education. The answers were researched with Arizona standards in mind, but may be applicable elsewhere. I am not an attorney or legal expert, so please check the laws and the school counseling ethical standards in your area, as well as your district's policies, before taking action on these topics.



Question 1: Who makes CPS reports and what is the procedure for making a report? Does that answer change depending on whether the suspected abuse is physical, sexual, or verbal?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Although CPS has made it very clear in the past few years that the adult who first receives information from a student about possible abuse is the one who needs to make the report, many schools and districts are still following the old procedure of having one designated person on campus make all CPS reports.

Best answer based on ethical standards and/or the law:

Offer a training to all staff about how to make a CPS report (the steps are simple). If you want to have a CPS liaison on campus, designate one knowledgeable person who will facilitate the reports and answer questions that might arise, but still require the first person who received the information to make the actual call and fill out the paperwork.

Question 2: What is the confidentiality policy regarding student use of alcohol or drugs off campus? Where is the line drawn about when parents are contacted?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Many districts, or individual schools, create a policy regarding off-campus alcohol or drug use based on what’s most practical for the school, rather than on what’s ethical or legal. For instance, some districts say they don’t call parents if a student reports off-campus “experimental” use of alcohol or marijuana, and only call if there is “obvious imminent danger,” and the policy if often inconsistently followed. This adheres on one level to the ethical standards, (breaking confidentiality when there is imminent danger), but ignores the legal issues at hand.

Best answer based on ethical standards and/or the law:

Let students and parents know up front that any and all reports of alcohol or drug use off campus will result in an immediate phone call home, and emphasize that the focus will still be on helping and supporting the student, rather than just informing on them. This way students can decide whether they want to reveal that information, knowing what the outcome will be.

Alternatively, if your district does have an “obvious imminent danger only” policy, specify in writing what the parameters of the policy include, and make sure every staff member has a copy. Prepare for questions from angry parents, and for possible lawsuits if parents find out that their student, who is now in rehab or a juvenile facility, revealed alcohol or drug use to his/her school counselor six months ago.




Question 3: What is the confidentiality policy regarding student sexual activity? Where is the line drawn about when parents are contacted?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

In the state of Arizona, it is illegal for anyone under 18 to have sex, but many schools, especially large high schools, do not contact parents about student sexual activity, based on the fact that sexual activity in itself is not considered "imminently dangerous.” The decision is also often based on the high numbers of sexually active teens and the objection that if school staff had to make a phone call home every time they found out a student was sexually active, that’s all they would do all day long.

Best answer based on ethical standards and/or the law:

To follow the letter of the law, let students know up front that any and all reports of sexual activity (intercourse) by a minor will result in an immediate phone call home, and emphasize that the focus will still be on helping and supporting the student, rather than just informing on them. This way students can decide whether they want to reveal that information, knowing what the outcome will be.

Alternatively, if your district does have an “obvious imminent danger only” policy, specify in writing what the parameters of the policy include, and make sure every staff member has a copy. Prepare for questions from angry parents, and for possible lawsuits if parents find out that their student, who is now HIV positive, pregnant, or fathering a child, revealed information about being sexually active to his/her school counselor six months ago.

One other consideration: Although it doesn’t seem to be officially written anywhere, CPS has confirmed by phone (on several occasions during 2007 and 2008) that they expect a report to be filed if any student aged 13 or younger reports having intercourse, if a minor has sex with anyone over 18 (even if their birthdays are only a month apart, but one is 17 and one is 18), or if there are more than two years’ difference in age between sexually active minors. CPS considers each situation individually and acts accordingly.

Question 4: What is the confidentiality policy regarding suspected or confirmed student pregnancy? Under what circumstances are parents contacted, who calls, and how is the call handled?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

While most school counselors will call home if a student is pregnant (based on health and safety risks for the student), some larger schools and districts actually have an official policy where counselors are not allowed to call parents about this, citing that this is “personal business, not academic business.”

On the other end of the continuum, occasionally a school counselor will call a parent when a student reports a pregnancy, only to find out later that the student had misinformation about sex and pregnancy, and assumed she was pregnant because she French kissed a boy.

Best answer based on ethical standards and/or the law:

First of all, see question #3 and the accompanying answers, all of which are relevant here. Second, pregnancy clearly indicates potential health and safety risks for students, and a need for medical and nutritional attention, and so requires a phone call home just for those reasons. Third, if there were medical complications and a student had a miscarriage or her own health problems associated with pregnancy, and the parents found out that the student had reported the pregnancy to the school, the potential for a lawsuit is very high.

So, let the student know up front that in the case of a confirmed pregnancy, you must call home, simply for health and safety reasons. You can have a list of exceptions to confidentiality posted in your office, or hand out an information sheet the first time you meet a student, or publish the list in the student handbook and have students and parents sign off on it at the beginning of each school year.

I would recommend first asking the student how the pregnancy was confirmed (pregnancy test, visit to a doctor, etc.), and then let the student know you will be calling home. Ask if she has a preference about which parent you call. Ask if she would like to make the call with you present (you dial, and confirm that you’re talking to a parent before handing the phone to the student), or if she would like to stay in the room with you while you call. These questions help maintain trust between you and the student, even though you have to call home.

Call the parent immediately. Many school counselors have historically given the student a few days to tell her parents, but in recent years, there have been students who left the counselor’s office, went home and attempted suicide (completed suicide in one East Valley district), attempted to trigger an abortion, or have done something equally dangerous. Don’t wait!

When you get the parent on the phone, be sure to ask if he or she can talk privately for a few minutes, rather than just blurting out the information while the parent is at work or on the freeway! Once past the initial stage of the conversation, recommend that the student see a doctor as soon as possible, answer any questions you can, and ask if you can support the student or the parent in any way.


Go to the next page, "Ethical Questions to Consider, Part 2 of 5."

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