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Exploring Confidentiality and Dual Relationships
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Saturday March 01, 2008
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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Q: Our district counseling director, who isn’t a school counselor, recently told us that school counselors are required to use our district's new student data program to log in all students we see. We will be logging their first and last names, as well as the general reason we are seeing them. We have been told that only our building principal and the counseling director will have access to print reports and view this information. I want to make sure that following my district directives will not pose an ethical conflict.

Unfortunately this question is all too familiar. There has been a recent influx of this type of request from administrators, district-level personnel and even corporations funding a school counseling position. In some cases, the request for student’s names and the topic of counseling sessions has not been merely a request but a demand. Asking a professional school counselor to disclose the names of students they see and reason for the visit is definitely an ethical concern.

First, however, we must consider why, as professional school counselors, we are being asked for this information. Perhaps it is because other educators don’t understand the school counselor’s role and our ethical standards. We must be sure to communicate these standards to administrators and to the public. One method for communicating this information is to mention in school counseling brochures and Web sites that ethical standards exist.

It is also important to clarify to administrators and others seeking disclosure of student information, that school counselors are obligated to maintain confidentiality unless the students are in danger to themselves or others or are being harmed. The ethics of confidentiality are at the very core of our practice as school counselors.

It is important to know the laws of your state regarding confidentiality. Knowing the policies and procedures of your school district will also help in clarifying the expectation of disclosure.

Research indicates 98 percent of students feel confidentiality is important or essential in coming to a school counselor. It has been stated that blurring the boundaries of confidentiality deteriorates the role of the school counselor. If it is expected that students come to the school counselor for support, then establishing trust in that relationship is key. Those asking for the names and topics of counseling sessions may not clearly understand the ethical dilemma they are putting the school counselor in or the level of trust this disclosure might affect. They must be educated about this issue.

Find out how administration plans to use this information and how it will be protected. There may be opportunity for compromise if administration is only looking for information in the aggregate. See if simply sharing the student’s first name or initial would be enough.

One caution to consider, however, includes our personal clarity on what confidentiality means. We, as school counseling professionals, can’t, on one hand demand that what is said in the counseling office stays in the counseling office and then go to the teachers lounge and openly discuss confidential information. Certainly there may be when we need to share confidential information with teachers or administration to assist the student, the student should give permission first. We must hold true to our professions ethical standards, if we expect others to honor them.

Q: I have been the school counselor at a private school for three years. Next year we are hiring another counselor. This person is currently the middle school teacher at our school, who by next year will be a licensed school counselor. Currently as a teacher he tutors our students outside of school over the summer and during the school year. He charges for his time and services. He would like to continue to do this next year when he is a counselor. I am thinking there are some ethical concerns to him being a counselor and also tutoring outside of the school setting. There might be a dual relationship involved and there might be some blurring of lines.

Because of the nature of the school setting dual relationships are prevalent in the school counseling arena. Being the lunch room monitor, a coach or even a tutor can imply dual relationship. It is difficult to avoid these types of interactions in school settings; thus it is important for school counselors to understand the scope and implications of dual relationships.

Even the term dual relationship is deemed archaic with some experts in ethics. Rocco Cottone and Vilia Tarvydas refer to these situations as harmful versus non-harmful interactions. The bottom line is whether the interactions are an exploitation of the student or not. Exploitation is defined by these authors as “an action by a counselor that benefits the counselor while it compromises the best interest or well-being of a client.”

Determining whether the above-mentioned situation is exploitive should be done in consultation with other professionals in the field, particularly since there is payment for service involved. Just as most school counselors would agree that self-referral for private counseling services for your own students and their families would be viewed as an unethical, self-referring students to your own tutoring services could also be viewed as exploitive.

In this situation, consideration must be given to how the school counselor’s judgment might be impaired based on his relationship with the tutored student, especially if this student were someone on his caseload. This school counselor will need to define his different roles and clarify the boundaries for each role. This explanation would be necessary for the student as well as for the parents paying for the services. Tutoring students outside his own caseload would certainly hold less threat to ethical violations than tutoring anyone from his own pool of students.

As school counselors, we all face exposure to relationships between students and the school counselor that may be outside the role of counseling. The most harmful relationship would be any sexual interaction with students, which is without doubt unethical and illegal. However, for those seemingly benign dual relationships, consultation, supervision and informed consent for the student would be important safeguards in an effort to avoid the slippery part of the slope.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at rwilliam@uccs.edu.

To submit your questions for the Legal | Ethical column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.