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The Duty to Address Personal Bias
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Sunday May 01, 2011
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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Scenario: My school counseling colleague and I were recently having lunch together when she began to tell me about a 15-year-old student she was working with who identified as gay. As she told me about this student she described how strongly her religious beliefs went against everything this boy was talking about. She said that based on her religious beliefs she felt compelled to counsel the boy “out of being gay.” She shared that normally she keeps her religious beliefs out of the school counseling office, but in this case she sees her efforts worth saving this boy. To me this seems unethical. How should I approach this?

First and foremost, our mission as school counselors is to advocate for all students, not just those with whom our personal values agree. Our professional mission based on the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors clearly identifies advocacy, leadership, collaboration and consultations as a means to provide equity in access and educational success. Given that 64 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth report feeling unsafe at school on any given day, how might they feel when the school counselor confirms that lack of safety and support?

Research states that four out of five LGBTQ students report they can’t name one supportive adult in their school. These students suffer from lower self-esteem, struggle with academics and often exhibit depression. They are more likely to run away from home and have a higher rate of substance abuse than the general population of students. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that students hear anti-gay epithets 25 times a day, and 97 percent of the time teachers do or say nothing about this type of harassment. This marginalized group of students, who represent 5 percent-10 percent of any given student body, is two to three times more likely to commit suicide. Almost 30 percent of completed suicides among youth are related to sexual identity.

The first tenant of the ASCA Ethical Standards preamble states, “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.”

The Ethical Standards are clear regarding the school counselor’s role in providing equity, social justice and self-determination. The preamble also states that students be affirmed in the groups with which they identify “with special care being given to students who have historically not received adequate educational services.”

Other research indicates that LGBTQ students are four and a half times more likely to skip school because of safety concerns; they also have a higher dropout rate than their heterosexual counterparts.
You are in a position to support these marginalized students and help them persevere through any discrimination they might encounter. However, as in the scenario above, it’s important to consider your own biases and influences. As indicated in section E.2. of the Ethical Standards, school counselors must strive for cultural competence, ensuring their personal beliefs will not be imposed on the students.

K. Robinson reports that isolation is one of the biggest concerns for LGBTQ students. As her article “Addressing the Needs of G & L Students: The School Counselor’s Role” suggests, other minority students are not as likely to be kicked out of their home or their peer group because of their race or ethinicity. Most do not suffer violence at the hands of their parents because of their identity. If the school counselor also discriminates against them, their world becomes more narrow and their vulnerability opens them to even more attacks.

Because the ASCA Ethical Standards express the right for each person to feel safe in the school environment “free of abuse, bullying, neglect, harassment and other forms of violence,” your task is to promote and provide that type of supportive environment. It is not your role to focus on a child’s sexuality or orientation or impose your personal values. Rather, your duty is to take the initiative to provide a safe environment in which these students can succeed.

Litigation is another consequence of the actions of the school counselor in the scenario. According to Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, more and more schools are being held liable for the hostile climate of a school. The Henkle vs. Gregory case imposed monetary sanctions on schools that do not provide protection from discrimination for LGBTQ students. Discrimination of any type has been against the law since Title VII in 1964 and was reinforced by Title IX in 1972. Through the increasing number of court cases over the past couple of decades, the judicial system holds that discrimination, be it racial, religious or sexual, is against the law. Schools, and professionals in the schools, that don’t uphold a student’s right to an educa¬tion without being discriminated against because of the social identification will be held accountable.

Even if the school counselor involved in this scenario is well-trained in the hotly contested conversion therapy, this would still be outside the prevue of the role of a school counselor and unethical to perform in a school setting. And the school counselor who wrote this concern, although uncomfortable with her peer’s reaction to the gay student, must also consider her ethical obligations. Should you find yourself in this situation, one of your obligations is to express your concern to your peer about the unethical approach to counseling this student “out of being gay.”

However, there are other obligations to consider as well. School counselors are in a position to provide prevention and intervention education and support. Researchers have found that teacher and school counselor interventions, both individual and schoolwide, create change in the school climate. Intentionally teaching inclusive language to staff and students is one way to intervene. Additionally, schools with a strong nondiscrimination policy have fewer incidents of homophobic remarks.

While the scenario demonstrates many ethical concerns, it is important to consider all the implications to the individual student and to the school climate. The school counselor’s position is about developing and enhancing positive relationships. Judging and proselytizing one’s own beliefs has no place ethically in the role of the school counselor.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the co-chair of ASCA's Ethics Committee. Contact the author for references to this article.