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Confidentiality vs. Principal Relationships
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Tuesday September 01, 2009
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight

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My school principal wants a list of all the students I see and the topics we discuss.
My principal wants the names of all the pregnant students we have in the school so he can suggest an alternative school.
The principal has asked me to disclose any student who discusses suicide.

The most frequent ethical questions I hear as chair of the ASCA Ethics Committee involve limits and boundaries of confidentiality between the school counselor and the school principal.  Requests/demands from a principal, such as those above, can cause a lot of angst in the school counselor’s world. Although its important to keep a positive working relationship with your principal, it’s equally important to keep trusting relationships with the students. Striking a balance between the ethics of confidentiality and the necessity of professional collaboration can be difficult.
Some of the difficulty lies in the fact that many administrators don’t know about school counselors’ ethical requirements.   In a recent study done with leadership and school counseling graduate students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, we discovered that none of the leadership students were aware school counselors even had ethical standards.   As a result they were also unaware of the impact breaching confidentiality might have on the relationship between students and school counselors.
The advent of the ASCA National Model has established a clearer definition of the school counselor’s role and a focus on accountability.   However, the ethical standards on which school counselors base their difficult decision-making, in particular confidentiality between the school counselor and students, remains a mystery to administrators. This mystery may result in tension between the two educational leaders.

Consider, for a moment, the principals’ role and perception vs. that of the school counselors. Principals’ perception of an effective school environment is from a macro-level. They must consider the big picture regarding the school’s operation. These professional educators must be disciplinarians, curriculum planners, supervisors, negotiators, budgeters and agents of change.   Principals operate from the perspective of what is done for one must be done for all.   They must constantly consider impact to the safety and climate of the whole school.

Principals often perceive confidentiality as interference to problem solving.   Some feel that under the guise of confidentiality only one side of the story is being heard, and therefore, it can be difficult to solving the problem.
In contrast, school counselors consider the impact the school has on the individual student. School counselors operate from a micro-level, assessing how to help each student become self-aware and self-motivated to achieve academic success.   In their multiple tasks, school counselors are often the heart of the school, always focusing on what is best for the students. From this perspective, the compounding life stressors for each student interferes with the student achieving success and must be dealt with on an individual level in a confidential and personal manner.

Based on the research, most students come to a school counselor because of the expectation of confidentiality.   Confidentiality is the cornerstone of our profession. While school counselors understand the limitations of only hearing one side of the story, they also understand the necessity of providing safety and a trusting relationship between themselves and the student. However, school counselors must also balance ethical and legal responsibilities between the students, parents and school faculty.   Most importantly school counselors understand the price of breaking confidentiality.

As the only professionals in the school specifically trained to address all three domains of academic, career and personal/social, in an effort to keep kids in school and academically focused, it is vital for school counselors to develop a type of “collaborative ethics.” Through collaboration, school counselors can balance students’ need for confidentiality with the principal’s need to maintain a functional school setting.
This seems to beg the question: how many school counselors have shared the professional ethical standards, the cornerstone of the profession, with their administrators? Sharing ethical standards between the administrator and school counselor would be the first step in developing collaborative ethics, with the next step including discussion and debate of the scenarios.   On-going discussions between the principals and school counselors are paramount. Such a   simple step may be the most basal method of changing the principal/school counselor relationship. These discussions can include roles clarification, methods of collaboration and impact on school climate. Of course, once an understanding is established between these two professional educational leaders, the message must be taken to the faculty, so everyone operates from the same page.

“Collaborative ethics” means constant effective communication. It entails having the hard discussions before the crisis occurs.   It means educating each other on the boundaries, both legal and the ethical, affecting school counselors’ professional relationships with the students. Most importantly it means mutual respect from both sides and building a collaborative relationship.

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