When Is It Ethical to Inform Administrators about Student Risk-Taking Behaviors? Perceptions of School Counselors

By Moyer, Michael S.; Sullivan, Jeremy R. et al. | Professional School Counseling, February 2012 | Go to article overview

When Is It Ethical to Inform Administrators about Student Risk-Taking Behaviors? Perceptions of School Counselors


Moyer, Michael S., Sullivan, Jeremy R., Growcock, David, Professional School Counseling


School counselors from across the United States responded to a survey asking when they should break confidentiality and report student risk-taking behaviors to school administrators. Generally, counselors believed it to be more ethical to break confidentiality when the behaviors were directly observed (as opposed to reported by students) and when the behaviors occurred on school grounds during school hours. Results also suggest counselors were more willing to break confidentiality when their school had a written policy guiding their actions. All behaviors showed some variance among respondents, suggesting a lack of agreement regarding when it is appropriate to break confidentiality and report risk-taking behaviors to administrators. This article discusses implications and suggestions for school counselors.

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Confidentiality is an essential component of the counseling relationship (Glossoff & Pate, 2002; Lehr, Lehr, & Sumarah, 2007; Linde, 2007). All counselors are faced with difficult decisions concerning when and how to breach confidentiality; however, school counselors are often challenged with this decision daily (Bodenhorn, 2006). Confidentiality is a primary ethical dilemma, largely because school counselors work with a wide range of students and are accountable to a number of stakeholders (Isaacs & Stone, 1999; Remley, 2002). School counselors must balance the demands of parents, teachers, and administrators, all while respecting the right to privacy of their primary obligation, the students (American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2010). Ethical and legal mandates offer some assistance in determining when to breach confidentiality and share information with parents (ASCA, 2010). In addition, numerous manuscripts have outlined best practices for notifying parents/guardians of behaviors that may be considered as potentially causing clear and foreseeable harm (Bodenhorn; Glosoff & Pate; Mitchell, Disque, & Robertson, 2002; Moyer & Sullivan, 2008). However, guidelines and resources are lacking when school counselors face the decision of when to share information with school administrators.

Although the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2010) offers some clarity on this issue, much is still open to interpretation by those practicing in the schools, which is true of all ethical codes and guidelines. Ethical codes outline procedures to follow when counselors are notified of potentially disruptive or damaging behaviors, but they do not offer clarification as to how school counselors should notify authorities other than to say that it should be done while honoring the confidentiality of the student. In addition, codes provide no explanation as to what constitutes a potentially disruptive or damaging behavior, and individual school counselors are likely to interpret this differently. For example, Moyer and Sullivan (2008) found that, many times, school counselors do not share the same interpretation of ethical standards and do not agree on when to break confidentiality and notify parents of an adolescent's risk-taking behaviors. Given the difficulty in determining when and how to break confidentiality and the lack of resources available to help guide one's behavior, school counselors may find it difficult to self-evaluate whether they are acting as another reasonable counselor would in a similar situation, as suggested by Remley and Herlihy (2001).

Confidentiality and School Administration

Under the heading Responsibilities to the School and Community, ASCA (2010, Section D.l.b) directs counselors to inform school officials of any activity that may compromise the school's mission, personnel, or property while at the same time honoring students' confidentiality. Glosoff and Pate (2002) detailed the dilemma this presents by stating that, unlike their duty to inform parents of potential risk-taking behavior, school counselors are not legally obligated to violate students' confidentiality, simply because they arc in a school setting. …

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