Ethical Questions to Consider -- Part 4 of 5

Here's the next set of "gray area" questions worth asking at your school, to avoid ethical or legal dilemmas:

Question 13: What is the policy about working with a student who is seeing an outside counselor? Do you contact the counselor, and if so, how do you go about getting permission or a release of information from the parent?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Many school counselors (maybe even most school counselors) are unaware of this as an ethical issue. Most school counselors don’t contact outside counselors unless the parent happens to request it and gives the school counselor the name and contact information of the outside counselor.

Best answer based on ethical standards:

The Ethical Standards for School Counselors states: “If a student is receiving services from another counselor or mental health professional, the counselor, with student and/or parent/guardian consent, will inform the other professional and develop clear agreements to avoid confusion and conflict for the student.”

This is in the best interest of the student so that the school counselor and outside counselor are not unintentionally contradicting or undermining each other, which can create more problems for the student.

The school counselor is required to make an attempt at getting consent to contact the outside counselor. There may be a consent form to fill out (from the school or from the outside counselor) in order to exchange information.

If the parent or guardian will not give consent, then the counselor can document the attempt, and ask the student general questions such as, “What kinds of suggestions has your counselor given you for situations like this?” with the intent of being able to add to or support what the other counselor is doing, rather than giving conflicting information.

Question 14: What is the policy regarding student cell phone use, text messages, pictures phones, audio or video recordings, etc?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Many schools have a policy prohibiting electronics on campus during the school day, but often the policies are not enforced, or are enforced by some faculty members but not by others. Aside from the obvious distractions and interruptions, students have learned how to cheat on tests by taking pictures of the tests with their cell phones and forwarding them to other students (who have the test later in the day), or by sending text messages to each other during tests.

There are also various reports of students photographing, and audio or video-recording others (teachers and classmates) without permission, and then posting the results on the internet. This can create all kinds of problems, legally and otherwise.

Best answer based on ethical standards:

Create a school wide policy prohibiting electronics on campus during the school day, and consistently enforce the rules. Create a policy where electronics are confiscated the moment they are seen or heard, bagged and tagged (usually a zippered plastic bag that can be marked with the student’s name), and sent to the office where only parents can retrieve them. On campuses where this is done consistently, the problem usually dramatically decreases very quickly.

Question 15: What, if any, is the policy regarding MySpace, Facebook, and other online social networking sites?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Most schools and districts say they don’t need a policy regarding these sites, because there is a firewall in place and the students can’t access them at school. However, there are various ways that students can access them anyway, including proxy sites where they enter a web address that isn’t caught by the firewall, which then takes them to the desired site.

Also, there are many cases of cyber-bullying, which school officials decline to deal with because they originated outside of school. However, the bullying often continues at school in the form of side comments, exclusion, and references to what was posted online, in which case it is something that needs to be addressed at school, because the bullying is continuing at school.

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

When a student comes to you about bullying that originated online, listen and validate feelings (which counselors would do about almost any situation, whether it happened at school or not), ask questions to determine whether the student feels safe at school, whether the cyber-bullying included any threats to the student’s physical safety, and whether the bullying has continued at school.

If there’s any overlap between home and school, address it. You can send students to peer mediation if you have that program on your campus, or facilitate a mediation between students yourself.

Also, encourage students to print the screen where the bullying or threats appear and keep it as documentation, and to bring it to their parents’ attention. If the bullying is severe, or contains obvious threats to the student’s safety, parents can pursue police reports, restraining orders, and harassment charges if they choose.

16. What is the policy or procedure if numerous students complain about a specific teacher’s behavior?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Many schools don’t have a specific policy about this, which unfortunately means that students believe that they have no recourse even if a teacher is actually behaving unethically or unprofessionally. If students do speak up, they are often told to wait it out, or not to create problems. Counselors may believe it’s an issue for administration to deal with, and administration may send students to the counselor. Many times, nothing is done.

Best answer based on ethical standards:

It’s difficult to know when a problem lies with the teacher, and when it lies with the student or students. It’s also difficult to know exactly what the counselor’s role is in this situation.

If you are a school counselor and hearing numerous complaints from students about a particular teacher, ask the students (individually) to document the things that are said or done by the teacher over a week’s time, including dates, times, and direct quotes from the teacher whenever possible. Specifics are always more helpful than general complaints.

Encourage students to deal with the issues directly whenever possible, with a focus on resolution rather than power struggle. Validate students’ feelings without judging or putting down the teacher. Teach students how to use “I” statements, ask appropriate questions, and set boundaries respectfully with the teacher, and ask them to document the results of those conversations.

Encourage students to talk with their parents about their concerns, and encourage parents to communicate directly with teachers before taking an issue to administration, unless the teacher’s behavior appears to put students’ health or safety at risk, or clearly violates students’ rights or laws.

If you have questions or concerns after hearing specific examples of the teacher’s comments or behaviors, consult with a colleague (another counselor or your supervisor, or possibly an administrator) to determine the best next steps.

If you do consult an administrator, consider giving the situation as a hypothetical “what if” situation, without naming the teacher at this stage, and asking for the administrator’s input about the best steps to take. The answers may differ depending on whether the teacher’s behavior is actually dangerous, illegal, discriminatory, or simply poor judgment.

If the issue has legal overtones, it’s best for the administration to handle it. If the behavior is legal but unproductive (such as a teacher who repeatedly makes sarcastic jokes at students’ expense, or dismisses students’ questions about class work as “obvious,” “stupid,” etc.), and the administration doesn’t feel the need to address it, you can encourage students and parents to continue to communicate directly with the teacher if possible, or to file a complaint or talk with someone at the district level if they believe the problem warrants that.

Having said that, there are times when a friendly conversation between the school counselor and the teacher may have an impact – it has happened! If you choose to go this route, see the article, "Tips For Approaching a Colleague When You Have an Ethical Concern." Approach from a place of concern for the teacher and students, not from a stance of judgment or punishment. Ask for clarification; offer to help if you can.

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

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