October 2017

In Your Community: Ethical Behavior Is Context-Dependent

By Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
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.

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.