Ethical Questions to Consider -- Part 5 of 5

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

Question 17: What is the policy about student petitions or strikes?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Most schools and districts don't have a formal policy about this, because petitions and strikes are more rare now than they were a generation ago. There's often a lack of clarity about what's legal and allowable in terms of student protest on a school campus.

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

Students do have the right to voice their views, but are limited in the ways they can do so on a school campus. As a school counselor, you can encourage many positive ways for students to express their views on subjects that are important to them.

Encourage students to make an appointment with administrators to express their concerns (and role-play the most productive ways to do this); write assertive and pro-active letters to the newspaper (school or local), principal, or school board; organize clubs, speakers, or activities related to their concerns; get permission to post notices or posters on school bulletin boards, set up information tables, conduct polls, or hand out fliers.

Let students know that they can express views, but they cannot block pathways or entrances, keep others from going to class, disrupt the educational process, or leave campus without permission during the school day, or they will face school (and possibly legal) consequences.

Question 18: What is the policy or procedure if a student reports that a parent or other adult is breaking the law?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Many schools and districts are inconsistent in addressing this issue. Some believe it's personal business and not school business. Others immediately call the police and CPS if a student reports that a parent is breaking a law. The outcome is that without a clear policy, counselors aren't sure what to do, so the issues often go unaddressed.

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

The bottom line questions are, “Is the student's health or safety at risk?” and “How imminent is the risk?” If the student reports that her father has cheated on his taxes for the last five years, the answer is probably no. If the student reports that her mother is operating a meth lab in the spare bedroom, or that her father robbed the nearby convenience store last night while she and her three younger siblings were waiting in the car, the answer is yes.

If you are unsure, call CPS and say that you are concerned about a situation, but are not sure it qualifies as a report. CPS workers are happy to listen to the details of the situation and advise you whether or not it constitutes a report. They will also advise you about whether or not to contact the police. In any case, document your call to CPS and what they advised.

Question 19: What is the policy or procedure if there is sexual activity reported between a student and a teacher?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

This is very similar to question #8, with the exception that in this case, the student may have consented to sex or may be willingly participating in a romantic relationship with the teacher. The mistake many counselors may make is to interview the student and also approach the teacher to get clarification. If this were a purely ethical issue, that would be the appropriate course of action, but because it’s a legal issue, it needs to be immediately turned over to administration.

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

When you hear this information, immediately report it to your administrator. Let him or her know that you just heard the information and have not spoken to the student or the teacher. Typically the administration will call the district level officials and the teacher will be placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Do not approach the student until you have permission to do so, which is usually not until after the case is closed.

Once the case is closed, if the student still attends your school, you may be able to get permission to talk with him or her to offer support and stress management strategies. Carefully guard confidentiality, and focus on what the student needs to regain emotional balance and manage stress, rather than asking specific questions about what happened. Often it’s acceptable for you to listen if a student chooses to talk about the situation, but not for you to ask further questions.

20. What is the policy or procedure regarding searches of students or their belongings?

Common answer that creates an ethical dilemma:

Students and school officials seem to have a variety of beliefs about what’s legal in terms of searching a student’s belongings, backpack, lockers, or having a student empty his or her pockets, etc. Some are hesitant to do any searching for fear of breaking laws or violating rights, and others perform random searches whenever they choose.

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

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution describes citizens’ rights against “unreasonable” search and seizure. School officials need “reasonable suspicion” in order to search, but the definition of reasonable suspicion is not particularly clear.

School resource officers, or police officers, need “probable cause,” which is more specific and more limited than “reasonable suspicion.” In short, school officials can usually search students’ belongings if they have any reasonable suspicion that they will find contraband there (cigarettes, lighters, weapons, drugs, or anything else illegal).

If your administrator asks you to conduct or participate in a search, and you would rather not do so because it threatens the rapport and trust you have with the student, it is reasonable to ask the administrator if someone else can do it.

However, if the administrator insists that you do it, I would suggest letting the student know that you’re uncomfortable in this situation, and being as respectful as possible while conducting the search. For instance, asking a student to empty his backpack often feels less violating for the student than searching through the backpack yourself.

You may also be able to offer the student a choice, saying, “Your bag will probably be searched. Would you be more comfortable if I did it, or if someone in the office did it?” Sometimes the student would actually prefer for you to do it if he or she trusts you. I would also highly recommend only conducting a search of student belongings with another adult present.

A Final Note About These 20 Questions:

This information was compiled after extensive interviews with school counselors from 2006 to 2008, and several conversations with CPS, Phoenix area police departments, and with information from the Ethical Standards For School Counselors (2004).

If any of these questions arise at your school, please check your school and district policies, and stay updated on changes in Arizona laws. Talk with your colleagues, supervisors, and administrators before taking any action if you are unsure about something.

A great resource for Arizona laws regarding minors in Arizona is Law For Kids, which is hosted by an Arizona attorney. A similar site with great legal information for anyone in Arizona is AZ Law Help

Here's a printable copy of all of these Twenty Ethical Questions To Ask At Your School. Please seek your own legal advice if you have questions or concerns.

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