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Solutions to Ethical Problems in Schools
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Thursday November 01, 2007
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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Q. Last night I saw a 12th-grade girl at my school coming out of the movie theater holding hands with one of our science teachers. How should I handle this situation? Does it warrant a report to child protective services? Should I tell the student’s parents?

This is one of those situations all school counselors dread, responding to a teacher’s poor choices. While this certainly requires some type of action, you must carefully consider the choices and consequences. Many school counselors may leap to some assumptions that might cause a knee-jerk reaction instead of evaluating all the possibilities. One way to approach this dilemma is through the Solutions to Ethical Problems in Schools (STEPS) ethical-decision-making model, from “School Counseling Principles: Ethics and Law,” by Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. This nine-step school-specific method involves:

1. Defining the problem emotionally and intellectually
2. Applying the ASCA ethical code and the legal issues
3. Considering the student’s chronological and developmental levels
4. Considering the setting, parental rights and minor’s rights
5. Applying the moral principle
6. Determining a potential course of action and its consequences
7. Evaluating the selected action
8. Consulting with peers
9. Implementing the selected course of action

Define the problem emotionally and intellectually: How old is the student, and what is the age of majority? If the state law is 18 for the age of majority and the senior student is that age, this is more likely to be viewed as an inappropriate act by a teacher, to which the school district might respond, rather than a sex crime. However, if the student is under the age of majority, then this situation could be a possible crime by a person “in position of trust.”

At minimum the teacher has made a poor personal and professional choice, even if the only thing that has happened is holding the student’s hand. If this “relationship” has gone beyond just hand holding, no matter how old the student’s is, there is an issue of betrayal of trust by the teacher involved. In either case some type of response by the observer is mandatory.

Emotionally, students of any age are susceptible to educator’s ideas and suggestions. Therefore an ethical teacher should not take advantage of a vulnerable student.

Apply ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors: A few sections of the ASCA Ethical Standards you should consider include:

B.1.a: School counselors respect the inherent rights and responsibilities of parents for their children and endeavor to establish, as appropriate, a collaborative relationship with parents to facilitate the counselee’s maximum development.
B.1.b: Adheres to laws and local guidelines when assisting parents experiencing family difficulties that interfere with the counselee’s effectiveness and welfare.
D.1.b. Informs appropriate officials of conditions that may be potentially disruptive or damaging to the school’s mission, personnel and property while honoring the confidentiality between the counselee and counselor.

Also take other state licensing board standards as well as state and federal laws into consideration.

Consider the student’s chronological and developmental levels: For this particular case the student’s chronological and developmental levels will be a major factor in your decision making. Is the student considered an adult or a minor based on the state law? If the student is a minor, the response will be different than if she/he is legally considered an adult. However, you must also consider this student’s mental capabilities and emotional maturity regardless of chronological age.

Consider the setting and parent’s rights, student’s rights and the school authority’s right to know: You must decide who to inform regarding this situation. Parents’ rights are certainly important in this case; however, telling them before you report this to the department of human services may affect the investigation, as the parents may demand some type of recourse for their child. A professional school counselor must also consider that the student’s rights and how to help this student in this difficult process. Talking to the student first, however, will also affect the investigation. Given this potentially volatile situation, it is important to alert a school administrator.

Apply the moral principals: Autonom of this student has been influenced by this teacher. Whether the student is considered a minor or not, there is still a concern of manipulative to consider.

Beneficence: A counselor involved in this situation must stay focused on protecting and promoting the good for the student in this case.

Nonmaleficence: is doing harm. To maintain this moral principle the school counselor will need to consult about the action that must be taken so that no further harm is done to this student. Justice: Even if the student is considered an adult, the situation would mandate some type of report to the administration. Without doubt, if the student is a minor further reporting must be made. For justice to occur the most important decision may who you speak with first. Loyalty and fidelity: This moral principle in this case, belongs to the student, not to the teacher, who has made a critical error in professional judgment.

Make a decision: The next step is to determine your course of action and the possible consequences. Consider the pros and cons of each choice before making a final decision.

Evaluate the selected course of action: If this case requires a report to social services because the student is a minor, you don’t want to negatively affect the investigation by interviewing someone and possibly influencing the investigation. If social services is to be involved, its representatives will want to complete their own interviews without any interference.

As you prepare to notify the administrator, take into consideration the relationship between the administrator and the involved teacher. This relationship could influence or interfere with an appropriate response to the situation. As an example, the administrator and teacher may have a personal friendship that might cause the administrator to minimize the situation.

Telling the parents about your observation prior to notifying social services most certainly will cause a reaction if the parents were unaware of the relationship. Again, notifying them prior to social services may in fact taint the investigation.

Consult: Consulting will be paramount in this precarious situation. Select professionals who have knowledge of the topic and the laws. You can also consult with social services with a hypothetical situation. However if the message from social services is clear that a possible crime has been committed, then you will need to file a report.

Implement the course of action: This case most likely will require some type of reporting. The student’s age is the key in your decision making. If this student is considered an adult having a consensual relationship with a teacher who is not being professional, you’ll need to notify an administrator. If this case involves a minor who is being exploited by a professional educator, reporting the incident to social service or the police is mandatory.

Be sure to document every consultation and how you made your decision.

Accepting gifts from students – teachers do it, so what do you think? Should school counselors accept gifts from students? If no, why not? If so, do you set a dollar amount limit of what you accept? Is this addressed in any code of ethics?

Although this question is specific to accepting a gift from a student, professional school counselors take into account the underlying message of any gift received from any source. Although there is no direct comment in the ASCA Ethical Standards about receiving gifts from a student, there are implications school counselors need to consider. For instance, if the gift is intended as a thank you for some special situation, with no intent to influence you, then perhaps it is more gracious to accept the gift than insult someone attempting to express gratitude. An example would be accepting flowers from parents of a young girl you counseled about a sexual assault. The parents simply wanted to say thank you for your support.

However, give serious consideration before accepting large gifts, such as an-all-expenses paid trip to a college. It can be argued that such a trip can only provide more information to the school counselor about the campus. It could, however, be viewed as a conflict of interest.

Most often gifts given to school counselors by students or parents are intended to be gracious gestures of appreciation. However, when a large gift is offered, the professional school counselor must evaluate the giver’s intentions and the implications behind accepting the gift.

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 atrwilliam@ucces.edu.