Home Section Page
ASCA Members Weigh in on Ward vs. Wilbanks
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Tuesday January 01, 2013
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.
 Security code

A student confided in his teacher that he was homosexual and that he was having a difficult time negotiating a same-sex relationship. The teacher suggests the student talk to you, the school counselor, about his difficulties in his relationship. You inform the teacher that due to a conflict in your values you will be unable to provide counseling services to this student and since there are no other counselors in the school you will find an outside referral resource for this student. Are there any legal and ethical concerns regarding your behavior?

Julea Ward, a student preparing to be a school counselor at Eastern Michigan University, was dismissed from her counseling program after she refused to counsel a gay client who needed help with his same-sex relationship. Ward, citing her religious beliefs, said she needed to refer this client as she could neither validate nor affirm LGBT behavior. Ward filed suit against Eastern Michigan University in 2009 citing her constitutional rights were violated. The university said she was dismissed for not following the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics, not for religious expression.

After a failed attempt in federal court, The Alliance Defense Fund helped Ward appeal to the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals.

Ward won the right to a jury trial, and the case was remanded back to a lower court to be heard, but a jury trial never ensued.

On Dec. 10, 2012, Eastern Michigan University settled with Ward for $75,000 stating, “Eastern Michigan University has made the decision that is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial.” ... “The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at EMU.” (Walter Kraft, Eastern Michigan University vice president).

Are there school counseling candidates whose beliefs should cause them and their preparation program to rethink their suitability for the school counseling profession? Can you have religious beliefs that match Ward’s and still seek and become an effective school counselor? On Dec. 11, 2012, one day following the announcement that EMU settled its lawsuit, ASCA members were surveyed on their opinions of the issues raised in this case, specifically issues around referring student/clients to other school counselors when school counselors believe their religious values will impede their effectiveness or when they believe they may harm a student. The survey also explored the question raised by the court case as to whether the school counseling profession is suitable for those with certain deeply held convictions that will bias them against segments of their population.

More than 2,000 ASCA members responded to the survey of 13 opinion prompts using a five-point Likert scale: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree.

Referring to another professional to avoid harming a student may be an appropriate ethical response in a few select cases, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.

81 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed.

A blanket practice of referring all known same-sex attracted students to other school counselors because conversations may turn to their same-sex relationships is appropriate.

81 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Prejudices (racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, etc.) are sometimes grouped together and referred to as “isms.” Some people maintain isms as a conscious part of their value system, choosing to believe certain groups of people or behaviors are inferior; other people may have biases of which they are completely unaware. In a profession such as school counseling, biases and isms are especially troubling because school counselors are assigned a caseload, and students do not choose their school counselor.

Ward professed she unable to work with students around issues of unwanted pregnancies, sexual activity out of wedlock and homosexuality. Referring becomes burdensome when colleagues have to take on the referrals of the school counselor whose biases continue to inhibit the provision of unconditional positive regard for segments of his or her case load. Troubling is how unrealistic referring can be when there are no other school counselors in the school to whom a student can be referred.

Compounding the issue of the referral approach is a student who may come in with a presenting problem that is a safe topic, such as academics, to test the school counselor for trust and acceptance before broaching the real presenting issue of same-sex relationships. Working with a student only to pull up short by referring to another school counselor would likely read to the student as a rejection of who he or she is as a person. To reject a student based on her pregnancy or his or her sexual activity out of wedlock is grave, but this is a rejection of their conduct rather than a rejection of who they are as a person. Rejecting a student based on sexual orientation is to reject the student as a person, which has far more potential for grievous harm.

In the Ward vs. Wilbanks case, Lambda Legal wrote an amicus brief (an opinion from someone not a party to the action but invested in the outcome). “Abundant empirical research attests to the vulnerability of LGBTQ youth in school and the potentially devastating consequences –including youth suicide- that may result from repudiation and rejection by school officials.” The amicus brief asked the state to support EMU, “. . . especially in light of the harm that a counselor could cause to LGBTQ youth if a counselor expressed disapproval of or refused to counsel such a student in a school setting.”

If a practicing school counselor/school counseling candidate has a bias against homosexuals or other sexual minorities then it is appropriate to refer a same-sex-attracted student to another school counselor.

78 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed.

What about the 100,000 school counselors already in the field, some of whom may have deeply held biases mirroring Ward’s beliefs? We are our values; we cannot simply drop our values on the way through the schoolhouse door to retrieve them at the end of the day. ASCA members see the value of referring to avoid harming (78 percent) but believe this should be the exception not the rule (81 percent). School counselors frequently counsel students whose behavior they do not condone, such as cursing at the teacher, refusing to cooperate with faculty and staff and displaying disrespectful behavior to their parents. School counselors work through these conflicts in values with students, making sure they accept the student if not the behavior.
Referral is a drastic step and should be done only as a last resort to avoid harming a student, but the real work needs to happen with school counselors examining their own isms and biases. The onus is on the school counselor to work to eradicate or soften biases so students are not systematically referred to other school counselors to accommodate a litany of topics the individual school counselor is unwilling to help students negotiate.

Certain school settings, grade levels or even the profession itself may not be the right choice for those who are unable to work with segments of the student population because their values will too often conflict with students’ need for support.

Survey respondents primarily work with high school or middle school students (1,529 out of 2,027). Think about how many of your students you would not be able to counsel if you refused services to anyone having sex out of wedlock, struggling with an unwanted pregnancy or engaged in sexual identity issues. Even elementary school counselors have students with these needs.

School counseling is a position with the power to promote good or do harm to vulnerable minors. Practicing school counselors no longer have the accountability of their counseling preparation program, but they have to hold themselves accountable with honest, self-examination of their biases and isms and work so their standard of care is to support all students with unconditional positive regard. Ethical school counselors engage in intentional self-examination, professional development opportunities and pointed opportunities for exposure to other opinions and viewpoints.

School counselors/school counseling candidates must be able to accept and affirm students of any sexuality even if they do not affirm or approve of their sexual behavior.

86 percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed.

Central to the court case was Ward’s refusal to abide by the American Counseling Association code of ethics. Ward erroneously believed she must approve of a student’s behavior to provide counseling for a student. Unconditional positive regard, a basic ethical tenet of the counseling profession, has never been or ever will be about affirming or condemning behavior; rather, it is about counseling in a nonjudgmental way and accepting the person if not the behavior. Counseling is about providing students with a safe place to explore their needs without fear of rejection. There are hundreds of students whose behavior school counselors cannot affirm or condone, but we give all our student/clients unconditional positive regard as directed by our ethical codes:
“Each person has the right to be respected, be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations including: ethnic/racial identity, age, economic status, abilities/disabilities, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance” (ASCA Preamble).

“Develop competencies in how prejudice, power and various forms of oppression, such as ableism, ageism, classism, familyism, genderism, heterosexism, immigrationism, linguicism, racism, religionism and sexism, affect self, students and all stakeholders” (ASCA E.2b).

“Acquire educational, consultation and training experiences to improve awareness, knowledge, skills and effectiveness in working with diverse populations: ethnic/racial status, age, economic status, special needs, ESL or ELL, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance” (E.2c).

School counselors worldwide have a compelling interest in ensuring members of the profession adhere to the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors.

If a school counselor/school counseling candidate is generally unwilling to work with students who request help with same-sex relationships then the school counseling profession is not an appropriate choice for this person.

63 percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed

A school counselor should be willing to counsel a student if the student requests help with same-sex romantic relationships.

74 percent of the 2024 respondents strongly agreed or agreed

School counselors are door openers for their PK-12 students. The profession bristles at the idea of gate keeping, yet counselor educators have the unenviable but critical ethical imperative of gate keeping to guard who goes into the profession while simultaneously working diligently to make sure school counseling candidates are door openers for all PK-12 students. Is this gate keeping in the spirit of the profession of school counseling whose tenet is advocacy for all? Absolutely. Counselor educators realize their primary responsibility is not to the school counseling candidate but to this person’s future vulnerable student.

Students are mandated to be in the school setting, without legal autonomy over their lives, struggling with identity issues. They are at the mercy of the person they should be able to turn to for help, the school counselor to whom they have been assigned based on their last name or grade level. All these variables and more make it critical that professionals in the field be aware of their power for harm or good and avoid consciously or unconsciously oppressing students. Isms and biases sabotage objectivity and inhibit a professional school counselor’s ability to work productively with all students. Professionals who harbor biases preventing them from working with segments of their population have work to do. The self-awareness work of ethical school counselors never ends in a profession built on advocacy for all students.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor, University of North Florida and ASCA’s ethics chair. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. The author thanks Sarah Beth Glicksteen for her help with research and the development of the survey questions.