Equity of Services and Dual Relationships
Author(s): Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
May 1, 2004
Part I: You love being a school counselor, especially for a select group of students that you describe as bright, engaging, accomplished students. It is this group of students that receives most of your time and attention. You believe these students have tremendous potential and are destined to make a considerable contribution to society. Further, you believe that with your limited time, it is in the best interest of the future of society to give most of your time and attention to the students you consider to be the future of America. For this select group you seek optimum schedules with the best teachers and frequent academic advising sessions. Because of your efforts these students have all the information they need to choose from a wide array of post-secondary education opportunities.
Part II: Your eagerness to interact with this select group of students is demonstrated by frequent attendance at their extracurricular events such as piano recitals, tennis tournament and, soccer games. You communicate and joke with these students as you would adult friends, encourage these students to call you by your first name and give them your home phone number and home e-mail address. You make certain you are extraordinarily responsive to the parents of this group and encourage their praise, gifts and invitations and accept personal favors such as the attorney parent who helped you free with a real estate closing. Are there any ethical and legal problems with your behavior?
Part I. The Ethics
“The professional school counselor monitors personal functioning and effectiveness and does not participate in any activity which may lead to inadequate professional services or harm to a client.” (ASCA Code of Ethics E.1.B)
“Counselors do not discriminate against clients, students or supervisees in a manner that has a negative impact based on their age, color, culture, disability, ethnic group , gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status or for any other reason.” (American Counseling Association Code of Ethics C.5.a)
“All” is a word we use loosely to mean “most,” “a high percentage” or “the majority.” Equitable and ethical school counselors strive to define “all” as “each and every student,” not just those who demand or seem worthy of our time but rather each individual in our charge.
As school counselors, we are offended by the blatant prejudicial behavior described in the above scenario. Selective service in school counseling is a clear case of unethical behavior, but what about unintentional selective service? School counselors are so outnumbered that due to sheer numbers alone we give more attention to some students and never see others. We all engage in the struggle to reach as many students as we can, not just the top 5 percent or most at-risk 5 percent. The struggle is not an easy one, but ethical behavior requires us to grapple with equitable service delivery. School counselors have over the years spent an inordinate amount of energy and time working for change, support or success for a small fraction of the students for whom they are responsible. This work is important but has not had sufficient positive impact for the many students whose futures are left to chance without strong advocates or savvy guardians. This effort to transform our practice to reach all students has been the focus of ASCA’s National Standards and National Model, which provide school counselors with strategies and techniques to deliver programs aimed at caring for all students.
Meeting All Students’ Needs
How does the equitable and ethical school counselor accomplish a program for all students? Luckily, there are powerful tools and strategies designed to help us extend our reach without adding to an already overburdened program. For example, when working with data, school counselors can make inequities transparent and set the stage for reflection and problem solving. Data used as a tool can create urgency, kill myths, show weaknesses, shock and challenge the state of denial. Data use and analysis help us change a school system, home system or community system so we are promoting equity of opportunity for all students. This systemic change can help us break down systems impeding student opportunity and alter existing systems or create new systems that have a positive impact on student success, such as a solid career program for all students in which every educator in the building is a participant.
School counselors behaving as leaders, advocates, counselors and systemic change agents can use their talents and unique positions in schools to promote ethical, equitable programs by having an impact on the instructional program, changing attitudes and beliefs about students and their ability to learn, addressing course enrollment patterns to widen access to higher-level courses and raising student aspirations. Counselors brokering, managing and accessing resources provide equitable and ethical programs by widening their influence and reach to include all students.
There are so many unalterable factors in students’ lives that cause them hurt and harm. For our students who don’t have security and comfort, we can’t change their parents, give them a loving home or establish optimal conditions for their time away from school. We can’t give to every child what we want for our own children, but we can seek for all children optimum opportunities in school. We can fervently influence the school environment so students have equitable, ethical school counseling programs that seek through education to better students’ circumstances and to ensure the skill and knowledge development necessary for them to become productive citizens. Optimum learning is the best gift we can give students in the 35 hours a week we have them.
As unwilling as we are as a profession to engage in preferential treatment for just a select few of our students as described in Part I, let us, as a profession, become just as intolerant of programs that fall short for some students.
Part II. Ethical Codes in Question
“The professional school counselor avoids dual relationships which might impair her or his objectivity and increase the risk of harm to the client” (American School Counselor Association Code of Ethics A.4).
“Counselors are aware of their influential position with respect to clients, and they avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients. Counselors make every effort to avoid dual relationships with clients that impair professional judgment or increase the risk of harm to clients. Examples of such relationships include, but are not limited to, familial, social, financial, business or close personal relationships with clients” (American Counseling Association Code of Ethics A.6.a).
“Counselors do not use their professional positions to seek or receive unjustified personal gains, sexual favors, unfair advantage or unearned goods or services” (ACA C.5.d also ” (American School Counselor Association Code of Ethics F.1.f).
School counselors have an ethical imperative to maintain professional distance with students and parents. Professional distance is the appropriate familiarity and closeness a school counselor engages in with students and/or their family members. When professional distance is violated, then dual relationships occur. Dual relationships are a serious breach of ethics for the professional school counselor as they compromise our effectiveness, place our employers in jeopardy and, most importantly, are a breach of trust in the counseling relationship.
Dual relationships can evolve in many ways. Accepting an invitation to attend a special event that has meaning for the student may be an act of support to a student who has no one to come and cheer for his or her accomplishments, who really needs someone to say, “You did a great job.” However, when accompanied by other behaviors such as trying to groom friendships with students, allowing students to call you by your first name, being overly attentive to select students, then these behaviors cross from benign to inappropriate. Inappropriate familiarity as conveyed in this case crosses over the norms of professional boundaries that school counselors need to establish with their minor students.
Professional distance is required in many professions but is a particularly critical requirement in the school counseling profession as school counselors engage in the personal/emotional/social arena with minors in a setting designed for academics. School counselors are privy to students’ and families’ struggles and personal issues. The nature of school counseling work requires us to guard closely against crossing boundaries. School counselors, more than any other group of educators, have a responsibility to ensure minor students’ emotional safety. It is a strongly recognized and respected tenet in the profession that dual relationships are to be avoided as they have the potential for grievous harm to our students and our profession, and they put our employers in jeopardy. The power differential between the school counselor and student makes it impossible for a student to give equal consent to the extraprofessional relationship. Violating professional distance with our students means that we are engaging in a dual relationship with them.
Personal Gains, Benefits
Dual relationships involve personal gains. Whereas professional school counselors work diligently to make certain they don’t even give the appearance of gaining any unfair advantages through their work, unethical counselors cross boundaries for personal gain, a disturbing ethical violation. These personal gains may include using the relationship to boost one’s ego, image in the community, sense of self-worth or self-importance. For others the gain may be the need to nourish the belief that they are the only ones in the school truly serving as a student-centered advocate. Dual relationships are sometimes sought to gain recognition and praise from influential parents. In our profession, we must continually examine our actions and ask ourselves the question, “Whose needs are being met by my behaviors?” If the answer is “only a select few students in my charge” or “I am feeding my own personal needs by my behavior,” then we are in the throes of a serious ethical violation.
It is unethical behavior for school counselors to try to establish themselves as heroes for students. Being a hero to certain students and their families to the exclusion of others is unethical conduct. Although we may disillusion ourselves that our behavior is amazing, above-and-beyond effort, nothing could be further from the truth. Counselors who suffer from the need to be a hero delivering extraordinary services will, out of necessity, attend to only a select group of their students. Sometimes accompanying this behavior is the need to massage policies, ignore school practice and hound administrators and teachers to make certain that selected students get all the benefits and, therefore, see the counselor as the hero.
Although it may appear that the school counselor in the scenario is just a caring person, celebrating students’ successes and getting involved in their lives, nothing could be further from the truth. The nature of a dual relationship means it exists to benefit the counselor not the counselees. An appropriate professional school counselor relationship is respectful of professional distance and demonstrates equitable behavior that makes a good faith effort to meet the needs of all students without prejudice.
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is an associate professor and school counseling program leader, University of North Florida and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American School Counselor Association Ethical Standards for School Counselors (1998) http://www.schoolcounselor.org
American Counseling Association Ethical Standards for School Counselors (1995) http://www.counselor.org
St. Germaine, J. (1993). Dual relationships: What’s wrong with them? American Counselor, 2, 25-30.
Remley, T. and Herlihy, B. (2001). Ethical, legal and professional issues in counseling. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Stone, C. and Martin, P. (2004). Data driven decision makers, 41(3), 10-17.
Stone, C. & Dahir, C. (2004). School Counselor Accountability: A MEASURE of Student Success. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.