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Rural, Suburban Or Urban Settings: Ethical Behavior Is Context Dependent
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Sunday November 01, 2015
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Dual Relationships in Rural Communities
You have lived in the same small, tight-knit rural community your entire life, and you know nearly everyone in town through religious affiliation, being an educator and the fact that your father was a popular coach who always had a houseful of people. You are the only school counselor in the community, and you worry you will be in a complicated dual relationships with certain students, especially when doing individual counseling as you know too much about their parents and family history. Do you have reason for concern?

ASCA’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors state: School counselors avoid dual relationships that might impair their objectivity and increase the risk of harm to students (e.g., counseling one’s family members or the children of close friends or associates). If a dual relationship is unavoidable, the school counselor is responsible for taking action to eliminate or reduce the potential for harm to the student through the use of safeguards, which might include informed consent, consultation, supervision and documentation (A.4.a).

School counselors know to avoid dual relationships with students if possible, but the difficulty comes when it is not possible, such as living in a small community with tight-knit social circles. The school counselor is responsible for taking action to eliminate or reduce the potential for harm. Such safeguards might include informed consent, consultation, supervision and documentation. Dual relationships also involve a differentiation in power, with the student who’s seeking services having less power than the school counselor and all the possible negative ramifications that can occur with power differentials.

The best practice is for school counselors to be vigilant about recognizing when they are engaged in a dual relationship and being prepared with steps to minimize negative implications. The personal relationships this school counselor has with many of the families and their children will sometimes require that the prudent professional refer students to others with a more objective eye if possible. If it’s not possible to refer students, then school counselors must work to treat all students the same. For example, if a friend’s child asks you for help with her or his schedule, and you are treating this child the way you would any other, then you have minimized any negative impact on this student or others.
Some safeguards against dual relationships can be established in advance. For instance, you will want to avoid engaging in teachers’ lounge conversations when students and their families are discussed. When it comes to dual relationships, school counselors must exercise caution and consider each situation individually.

Individual Counseling in Rural Communities
In this rural community where everyone knows everybody, you are the only school counselor and there are no mental health therapists. You best friend’s child seeks your help during a relationship crisis with her mother. You know that you should refer her to another school counselor, but there isn’t one. What can you do for this student who is suffering academically because of her crisis with her mother?

If there are no other school counselors in the community, you may have to research, suggest and/or provide alternative ways for the student to receive help. A great deal depends on the presenting problem the student needs to discuss. Dual relationships and the potential for harm are on a continuum and are considered on a case-by-case basis. For example, if you are conducting individual or classroom guidance lessons on academic success, the likelihood of harm from the dual relationship is lessened. However, individual counseling with your friend’s child about complicated family matters probably requires a referral or alternative means for help. The student’s presenting problem is critical in determining how you should react.

Questions you might consider are: Is there a reputable school counselor in a neighboring community who might be willing to help? If the school counselor is too far away can the school counselor help via phone or online counseling? Are there books or materials you can provide that would help this student in lieu of individual counseling? Does the presenting problem lend itself to the student seeking help from his or her religious leader? Is there another talented educator who has experience or expertise and sound judgment who might lend a listening ear? Is there a peer program that might be appropriate for the presenting problem?

In most cases, school counselors can put parameters in place allowing them to minimize potential harm of dual relationships and allowing for counseling. The child’s developmental maturity must be considered as to whether he or she can make an informed decision to work with the school counselor despite the dual relationship. Some situations trump concern for dual relationships. If the child is seeking help with child abuse it does not matter how complicated the dual relationship, the school counselor must act and report the abuse.

School counselors of every stripe have long recognized the need to turn the highly charged atmosphere of the counseling dyad into a safe space for the counselee’s intimate explorations. The counseling profession developed boundary lines out of the effort to take advantage of the benefits while minimizing the risks of the emotional dynamics of the dyad. Appropriate boundaries have been carefully crafted and built as a protection of the student, who is turning to the school counselor for help.
In this complex situation, there is danger of blurring the scope of the school counseling role with other roles, such as being her mother’s friend. Without question the school counselor is there to help students, but in our effort to help sometimes we may do more harm. Above all do no harm is a moral principle of our profession. As much as this student needs a listening ear and a helpful adult, it is possible that it cannot be the school counselor in this particular situation and this is a hard fact to face in a profession built on caring for students social/emotional needs. The school counselor must weigh the good and bad consequences and determine if the potential for good far exceeds the possibility of harm.

Context-Dependent Ethics
You are new school counselor and new to this community. Prior to becoming a school counselor, you were a teacher in two other school districts. You continue to be surprised by this school district’s hands-off approach when it comes to working with sexually active students. In your previous school, the nurse was able to give out contraceptives and the morning-after pill. You have a student who has asked you for help, and you are considering giving her the phone number to Planned Parenthood. You know the community and school will interpret this as involving yourself too much in family values. However, you intend to put your student’s welfare above your own. Are you behaving ethically? Are there aspects of being a school counselor that you are not considering?

Ethics are situational. Ethical practice is dictated in part by the prevailing standards in the local community. School counselors avoid the temptation to impose their own values on students, parents and the community. Community and institutional standards can differ significantly from school to school and community to community. It is difficult to accept that professional behavior varies according to the prevailing standards of the community, but our ethical imperative is to be aware and respectful of the school’s community standards. It is acceptable behavior for school counselors in certain schools and communities to refer pregnant students to Planned Parenthood, but in many other communities, this action would be considered a serious breach of ethics and infringing on family values and parents’ rights to be the guiding voice in their children’s lives.

School counselors acknowledge the prevailing standards of local the community and respectfully adhere to those standards. However, adherence does not mean we unconditionally accept all community standards. If we believe a practice, policy or law of a particular school or community is detrimental to students, it is our ethical obligation to work in a responsible manner to try to influence a change so students are advantaged. ASCA’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors state: “The professional school counselor supports and protects the educational program against any infringement not in students’ best interest” (D.1). School counselors are politically minded and work adroitly with internal and external stakeholders, such as families, parents, guardians, administrators and teachers, when change is needed. School counselors have an ethical responsibility to ask tough questions in a respectful way and to encourage fellow educators to evaluate their stance on controversial topics.

Courts have used community standards in arguments in support of defendants’ and plaintiffs’ cases. For example a school counselor who acted on her religious values became the center of a court case in Grossman v. South Shore Public School District (2007). Grossman was a school counselor in a tiny Wisconsin town with 838 churches within a 40-mile radius. Based on her religious beliefs, Grossman discarded board-approved literature on contraceptives and ordered replacement literature on abstinence. Grossman also prayed with students on at least two occasions. At the end of her third year, the superintendent recommended Grossman’s contract not be renewed, explaining she was not a “good fit” with the school based on her religious practices. In this church-saturated community the superintendent and many administrators were also Christians, but Grossman filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, citing religious discrimination. Grossman stated she believed her contract was canceled because her views on abstinence and prayer aroused the district’s religious hostility. In setting aside the case in favor of the school district, the court considered the community in which the school was situated and concluded that based on the make-up of the region “it is a fair guess that atheists and other non-Christians do not pull the strings at Port Wing’s sole public school.” If Grossman had been working in a religiously intolerant community her case might have been given a jury trial, but the court in summary judgment concluded that it was Grossman’s conduct, not her religious beliefs, that caused the dismissal.

It is important to have a feel for the local level of tolerance for school involvement in value-laden issues and to understand that school board policy is law, and adherence is not optional. The ASCA Ethical Standards ask that we adhere to school board policy, which most often reflects the standards of the community.

Community Standards and Professional and Personal Behavior
Rachel, a school counselor in a conservative, rural town is working a second night job at a restaurant that lures customers in with very skimpy wait staff uniforms with double entendres written across the chest. There is also a pole in the middle of the restaurant, and when celebrating birthdays a client can request a pole dance from any waitress. Rachel wears this costume four nights a week in this small town where her students’ parents/families are customers. Is she practicing within the standard of care for a school counselor?

Rural, urban or suburban, school counselors and other educators face possible questions of whether they are fit for the profession when they choose a second job that can be interpreted as morally questionable. New York City, largely viewed as liberal and open, fired a school counselor over her modeling career 17 years in her past. If this can be the case for a city of 8.5 million people would a smaller, more intimate community likely have issues with a skimpily clad school counselor even though it is happening during off hours?

Tiffany Webb is but one of dozens of cases where educators lost their job in the schools due to their choices of other jobs during or prior to their careers as educators. Webb was a 37-year-old school counselor at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in New York City when she was fired for online pictures characterized as racy. Webb pursued a modeling career in her late teens to early 20s. Webb was dismissed after pictures surfaced of her in revealing lingerie. Webb’s 12-year career as an educator came to an end in New York City after a student showed an educator the pictures. One of the two chancellors who voted to dismiss her stated, “That behavior has a potentially adverse influence on her ability to counsel students and be regarded as a role model.” Her tenure was retracted, and she was dismissed for “conduct unbecoming” of a New York Department of Education employee. Webb took a job in New Jersey under an assumed name and sued to return to her position in Brooklyn with back pay and punitive damages. The disposition of this case is unpublished.

The nature of a second job and its suitability can only be answered in the context of a school counselor’s individual situation, largely relying on community standards as the guide. There are no hard-and-fast rules of behavior saying a school counselor can’t be a wait staff off hours in a skimpy uniform and occasionally pole dance. However, the professional fallout happens when school counselors are viewed as unable to do their job because their status as a role model is in question. Guidance in ethical codes and a history of practice imply that school counselors adhere to a higher standard of professionalism in interactions with the school community than their fellow educators because of the intimate, personal nature of counseling. The school district’s interest in Rachel’s ability to work effectively as a school counselor outweighs her right to take any second job she chooses. If Rachel’s second job interferes with an appropriate environment for her students then she cannot do her primary job of effective school counseling.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor at University of North Florida and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu.