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Helping Homeless Students
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Wednesday January 01, 2014
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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The liaison officer for homeless students attended the most recent districtwide meeting for school counselors to issue the directive that all school counselors are to report to her office when they learn a child is living in a homeless situation. The officer explained that some of the school counselors were refusing to provide her office with the information on the grounds that homelessness does not meet the ethical imperative of breaching to prevent a “clear imminent danger.” The homeless liaison officer has explained that the information is needed for children and their families to receive transportation, free meals, health care and other essential services. You tend to agree that her office should be notified to help homeless children, but you also appreciate that homelessness is sensitive information for some students, and they may not want this shared beyond their school counselor. The ethical imperative of establishing and maintaining a trusting relationship with students is in your opinion a serious matter, but you also understand if there are legal imperatives they supersede ethical ones. Is this one of the times in which the law trumps ethics?

The federal government defines homeless children as those lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence to include those living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels or sharing temporary housing with others. During the 2011–2012 academic year, more than 1.1 million children, accompanied by an adult, were homeless. Even this disturbing number is likely a significant underestimate because the data collected represent only those children school officials were able to identify and report and does not include all preschool-age children. Fifteen percent of homeless children were living in shelters; 75 percent were doubled up with others; 5 percent were living in motels, with the balance in unsheltered locations. It is estimated that the number of homeless youth unaccompanied by an adult is an additional 1.6 to 1.7 million per year, representing runaways or those forced out of the home by parents.

According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), homeless situations are often precarious, crowded and unsafe. For these children school can be a lifeline, a place of safety, structure and opportunity. According to NAEHCY, homeless children and youth face unique barriers to education, including:
  • Being unable to meet enrollment requirements (including requirements to provide proof of residency and legal guardianship, and school and health records)
  • High mobility resulting in lack of school stability and educational continuity
  • Lack of transportation
  • Lack of school supplies and clothing
  • Poor health, fatigue, and hunger
  • Emotional crisis/mental health issues
  • Lack of a parent or guardian in the case of unaccompanied homeless youth
When working with these vulnerable youth who’ve turned to you in trust, how can you respect the student’s confidentiality while also reaching out to the homeless liaison to enable the liaison to support the student and family? In this instance, there is a legal imperative for reporting homeless youth to the liaison officer. The McKinney-Vento Act is federal legislation supporting homeless children to receive an equal, free, appropriate public education and all that this entails. The act states:

“Each local educational agency liaison for homeless children and youths, designated under paragraph (1)(J)(ii), shall ensure homeless children and youths are identified by school personnel and through coordination activities with other entities and agencies.”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act specifically allows the sharing of information with other school officials within the district or school who have legitimate educational interests (LEI). The homeless liaison officers have LEI, and to do their jobs as directed by the federal government, they have to know who the homeless children are in their district. Additionally, school districts are legally required by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) to gather and report data on the number of homeless students in the district. To avoid duplication, the information collected must be personally identifiable, and the nighttime residence provided if known. The McKinney-Vento Act requires that school districts provide transportation so children have the option of staying in their school of origin regardless of how many times they move to different school zones. Complying with McKinney-Vento can be costly to districts. The required information collected for the USDOE also allows many schools and districts to apply for grant money to provide additional programs and services, such as transportation aimed at meeting the needs of homeless children and youth.

Yet, despite the legal support requirements for reporting homeless children, the question of breaching the trust placed in us by students who request confidentiality still leaves many school counselors uncomfortable. Students might be deeply embarrassed by their plight, afraid they will be separated from their parents by social services, etc. There are many reasons why a child might appreciate or even plead for confidentiality. The profession acutely recognizes children’s need for privacy and a trusting adult to whom they care share their confidences. The law supersedes ethics; yet, this real scenario tests our skills to obey the legal imperative, while aspiring to also remain ethical.

This topic for this column is a result of a national organization turning to ASCA for help as a group of school counselors in a particular state were refusing to provide information to the homeless liaison officers because they said homelessness does not meet the criteria of clear, imminent danger. The Revised 2010 American School Counselor Association Ethical Codes and Standards of Practice replaced “clear imminent danger” with “serious and foreseeable harm.” Is clear imminent danger a 7 year old living in a car with four other people? If you substitute the concept of clear imminent danger for serious and foreseeable harm, does this help with the decision to involve the homeless liaison officer?

  Trust is a crucial hallmark of the school counseling profession. The ASCA Ethical Standards emphasize the balance that must happen between loyalty to students and consideration that must be given to other educators and the need-to-know information to advantage a student. School counselors practice in a unique setting dictating responsibility beyond the student. It is a tug of war that school counselors must skillfully negotiate with the help of our partners in education. At the end of the day, personally identifiable information must be provided to the homeless liaison officer, but prior to doing so the skilled school counselor will work with homeless students to help them understand why the breach is necessary. Relay to the student what you need to tell the liaison, and considering the developmental level of the student, it might be appropriate to ask the student if he/she would like to be present or provide the information. The test is to advantage the student by collaborating with other educators in the school while keeping a trusting relationship.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is  a professor at the University of North Florida and ASCA’s ethics chair. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. Contact the author for references to this article.

To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.