Record Keeping and the School Counselor

Article excerpt

A survey of elementary and middle school counselors revealed confusion and diverse practices regarding the storage, sharing, and destruction of counselors' notes. A literature review found guidelines developed at a conference convened by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1969. This article categorizes student data according to how personal and stable the information is, and it offers clear-cut protocols for the storage, access, and destruction of these data. School counselors would be well served by adopting such guidelines.

School counselors benefit from the ongoing work of the American School Counselor Association's (ASCA) Ethics Committee. Confidentiality, legal issues, and ethical decision making are frequently covered in journals, books, conferences, and workshops. On occasion, school counselors are called to testify in court, particularly in cases of child custody. Because most school counselors are not licensed as mental health professionals, but are certified as school personnel, the school counselor cannot guarantee confidentiality. Licensed mental health professionals take great care to thoroughly summarize client meetings, both to aid memory between sessions and for the therapist's protection in documenting proposed or actual intervention. Courses and workshops that address the issue of record keeping and confidentiality for school counselors generally warn that keeping detailed notes can lead to the betrayal of any confidentiality the student may have presumed at the time the counseling session began. Another caution is that any records kept in school are the property of the school and are, therefore, subject to subpoena.

This inherent contradiction--the need for confidentiality to properly assist students without the legal protection of confidentiality--has led to some creative solutions for the documentation of one's work with a student. In some cases, these solutions have become common practice, such as maintaining a notebook that is kept on one's person. In order to find clarity on proper documentation that would protect confidentiality, I sought three sources of information: a review of policies and legislation, a literature review, and a survey of school counselors in New Hampshire.

Following are the specific questions that were to be answered through this research: (a) How does one record counseling sessions in accordance with the law and best practices? (b) What are the regulations and guidelines regarding disclosure for counselors when children who have received services make a transition to other schools? (c) What are the practices regarding obtaining parental permission at the elementary and middle school levels? (d) How long should a counselor maintain data after a child has left the school?

POLICY AND LAW REVIEW

In 1974, the United States Congress enacted the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The purpose of this act is to define the rights of parents and students who are 18 years or older regarding the inspection, disclosure of contents, and making revisions of educational records. A student record is defined as a record that is maintained by an educational institution and contains information that is directly related to a student (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2001). According to Fischer and Sorenson (1996), the definition of student record does not include counselors' personal files if they are entirely private and not made available to others. AS these files are considered to be private, they may not be passed to someone who will permanently take over the duties of the counselor who made the notations.

In 1997, the U.S. Department of Education released a manual called Protecting the Privacy of Student Records. It summarizes key laws and regulations regarding record keeping, including FERPA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to this document, handwritten notes about a student written by a counselor, teacher, or administrator are not considered to be an education record under FERPA and are therefore "not subject to access or disclosure rules" (Cheung, Clements, & Pechman, 1997, p. …