Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Surviving a Lawsuit against a Counseling Program: Lessons Learned from Ward V. Wilbanks

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Surviving a Lawsuit against a Counseling Program: Lessons Learned from Ward V. Wilbanks

Article excerpt

As counselor educators, we have three distinct responsibilities. First, we have a responsibility for the training and development of our students to prepare them for entry into the counseling profession (ACA Code of Ethics, Standard F.7.; American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005). Second, when our students are engaged in the provision of counseling services under our supervision (usually during a practicum or internship experience), we have a responsibility to protect the welfare of their clients (ACA, 2005, Standard F.1.). Third, we have a responsibility as gatekeepers to the profession to strive to graduate only those students who are adequately prepared--with regard to their knowledge, skills, and dispositions--for entry into the counseling profession (ACA, 2005, Standard F.9.).

Fortunately, more often than not, these roles coincide with our students' needs and desires. Our students are generally eager and willing to learn from us; they usually express appreciation of our supervisory responsibilities because they want the best for their clients and find reassurance in knowing that a fully licensed professional is monitoring their work; and they typically succeed in developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for entry into the profession. At times, though, despite the best efforts of both parties, counseling faculty form a good faith opinion that a student has not succeeded in developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for entry into the profession. A student struggling with the acquisition of knowledge may be placed on academic probation. A student struggling with skill development may have difficulty passing the skills courses necessary for advancement to the next level of the training program. In addition, a student struggling with the development of a disposition appropriate for the field of professional counseling may struggle with consistently demonstrating behaviors aligned with the standards reflected in our professional code of ethics.

In such cases, there are various possible outcomes. Ideally, the student is able to make whatever changes are necessary to meet the counseling program's expectations. This may involve remediation activities, such as acquiring a tutor, reprioritizing school, retaking classes, or even participating in outside counseling to address personal issues interfering with academic success. Sometimes, however, the student is either unwilling or unable to successfully engage in such remediation. In such a case, a student either voluntarily exits the program or is dismissed from it. Although these situations are unfortunate, rare, and tend to be difficult experiences both for the student and the faculty members involved, it is incumbent upon counselor educators to make these tough decisions in order to meet their responsibility as gatekeepers. Meeting this responsibility, however, may result in legal challenges to gatekeeping decisions.

In this article, we describe such a case. Specifically, as faculty members at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), we present information about a lawsuit that was filed against EMU that challenged our counseling program's right to apply its curricular standards in furtherance of the gatekeeping function described earlier. After providing information about the lawsuit, including the plaintiff's claims, the university's defense, and the disposition of the case, we turn to a discussion of the lessons learned and offer recommendations to other counselor education programs.

* Description of the Lawsuit

The Ward v. Wilbanks (2009) case was filed by an EMU student, Julea Ward, in response to her dismissal from EMU's graduate school counseling program after her refusal to counsel clients on matters that she claimed conflicted with her religious beliefs. Because of the highly publicized nature of this lawsuit, including the plaintiff's filing of a 121-page complaint commencing the lawsuit, in which she disclosed the relevant portions of her academic record relating to this matter; promotion of legislative bills bearing her name (http://www. …

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