Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

School Counselors and Confidentiality: Factors Affecting Professional Choices

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

School Counselors and Confidentiality: Factors Affecting Professional Choices

Article excerpt

Confidentiality has long been held as critical to gaining a client's trust. Children have the right to expect that the adult protection includes protection of their privacy rights (Huey & Remley, 1988a). Zingaro (1983) believes that a child's right to privacy, regardless of the child's age, should only be compromised in very extreme circumstances; however, extreme circumstances can be variously interpreted. It is widely believed that without the assurance of confidentiality, many students would not seek help or would not be entirely forthcoming (Ford, Millstein, Halpern-Felsher, & Irwin, 1997).

School counselors are frequently confronted with the challenge of balancing the rights of minor clients for confidentiality with the legitimate rights and concerns of others and a counselor's responsibility to act in a minor child's best interest. In a 1983 unsuccessful suit Roman v. Appleby, brought by parents against a school counselor, a U. S. federal district court noted that in schools the constitutional rights of children, parents, administrators, and teachers all compete (American Counseling Association, 1993). Managing confidentiality is often the most difficult ethical issue facing school counselors.

Counselor Codes and Confidentiality for Minors

The primacy of confidentiality is clear in the codes of ethics and standards of practice for the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American School Counselors Association (ASCA), which devote considerable attention to confidentiality. ACA (1995) defines a counselor's obligations to all clients and to minor clients in particular, "Counselors act in the best interests of clients and take measures to safeguard confidentiality" (p 3). The American School Counselor Association (1992) makes its position clear: "Each person has the right to privacy and thereby the right to expect the counselor-client relationship to comply with all laws, policies and ethical standards pertaining to confidentiality" (p. 1). Concurrently, both ACA and ASCA suggest collaboration with parents and families in situations that involve minor clients and their confidentiality. "A school counselor respects the inherent rights and responsibilities of the parents for their children and endeavors to establish a cooperative relationship with parents to facilitate the maximum development of the counselee" (ASCA, 1992, p. 2).

Complicating Factors

Inconsistent Rules and Confidentiality with Minors

ASCA (1992; 1986) repeatedly refers to counselors' obligations to law and local guidelines. Yet these guidelines often vary considerably between states and/or local jurisdictions and may vary within school districts or by level of school (Baker, 1996). Courts have dealt both with parental rights and the establishment of a mature-minor concept in terms of an adolescent owning their privacy as well as other rights (Fischer & Sorenson, 1996). Schmidt (1996) suggests that some states have specifically granted confidentiality (in the form of privilege) to students while other states are mute. School board policies and community standards may necessitate breaking confidentiality. One Florida school board has established specific procedures for school personnel when dealing with issues of contraceptives and abortion (Clay County Public School Board, 1996).

Even when the administrative policies or rules are clear, some counselors express ambivalence about following them. In Davis and Mickelson s (1994) survey of school counselors, ethical dilemmas that involved issues of student client privacy, confidentiality, and parental rights received less than 50% agreement regarding the preferred ethical or correct legal choices. Research with helping professionals, for example, suggests that knowledge of the rules of abuse reporting does not always predict compliance (Butz, 1985; Crenshaw, Lichtenberg, & Bartell, 1993).

Parental Rights

ASCA (1992;1986) recognizes that school counselors have multiple obligations that extend beyond their student client, including families, teachers, administrators, and other students. …

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