Ethical Challenges of a High School Counselor

In today’s working environment, a solid foundation of trust, integrity, and ethics are required for an organization to be effective. All employees should be team players and have the outlook for the same goal of the organization in which they work. In almost every organization, employees face ethical challenges while working in their profession. Since ethical challenges exist, employees must learn to deal with situations as they arise at the workplace. Leaders who demonstrate the values of trust, integrity, and ethics help build an environment which consists of consistent behavior or behavior that matches beliefs across a variety of situations. Ethical standards are used to guideline and refer to in situations that create dilemmas and can be defined as “problems for which no choice seems completely satisfactory, since there are good, but contradictory reasons to take conflicting and incompatible course of action” (Kitchener, 2000, p. 2)

My intended profession after graduation from Chapman University College is to become a high school counselor. I have worked for a school district for the last twenty years and have worked closely with school counselors. I am aware that in the work setting of a counselor, they are continually faced with many ethical challenges. Since the clients of a school counselor are minors, a counselor has many interested parties in which they are responsible to; students, parents/guardians, teachers, staff, administrators, etc. Today, school counselors are given heavy caseloads meaning large numbers of students to counsel, and they are working in a school setting that requires the compliance of federal, state, and school policies. Ethics is not about what we say or what we intend, rather it’s about what we do.

A few challenging ethical dilemmas in particular that I think I may encounter, but may not be limited to are student confidentiality, dual relationships, and counseling students that intend to danger themselves or others. As a professional, that being a school counselor, I will be required to abide by ethical standards which are particular to my profession and in general a social contract. A counselor is a role model at all times, whether at school or in public and must follow the “Ethical Standards for School Counselors” which was adopted by the American School Counselors Association, the “ACA Code of Ethics” which was approved by the American Counseling Association, and the school district’s code of ethics.

Since counselors want to gain the trust of their students, they must build a professional relationship with their students. This can be modeled by school staff that is collegial and works with integrity. Collegial meaning one must know their coworkers as part of the team, one which consists of site based leadership. All employees are on the same track and work together to make decisions. Integrity is a value we must possess and demonstrate as a measure of character. Students observe us and maybe even will learn to mimic our collegial behavior and become part of the team as well. Although our students are not on our payroll, I do consider them as part of our team. We must treat them with respect and integrity. In return, they will confide in us and speak to us freely. As coworkers are my friends, students are as well my friends on a sort of professional level. Once students trust their role models, that trust must not be broken.

Confidentiality is a very important aspect of counseling. In my current position as school secretary, I have been asked on numerous occasions by my bosses to counsel students. I have become not only a secretary to them, but also an unpaid counselor, a friend, and a confidant. The students that I have met with have at times returned to my office to update me on their situations or to seek further assistance. Sometimes students from the other high school in the district walk across the street because they heard that I was someone they could trust and would listen to their confidential situation. Part of confidentiality is listening and not repeating what is being said between me and the student. As routine, before I begin to speak to a student, I remind them what we say here, will stay here, unless I am not trained to help you I will have to seek help from my superiors. There have been times when a student confides in me a situation which requires me to make an ethical decision. For instance, a young lady came to me and asked if I would take her to Planned Parenthood because she thought she might be pregnant. I did not feel it ethical for me to take her to the doctor without parent permission since she was a minor, so I provided her the resources that she and her parents could seek out. I offered to visit her parents along with the student to notify them of the situation if need be. After speaking to the student, she agreed for me to accompany her to speak to her mother. At that point, I had to remind the student of our first conversation that if I wasn’t sure how to help, I would have to seek help on my end since I am not an official school counselor. I did seek the advice of an administrator for consultation in resolving this dilemma. The pregnant student and her mother decided that they would opt for an abortion. That, being their choice, was never spoken of to anyone out of the room.

Confidentiality also concerns laws and school policies regarding student records and as a counselor one must stick to ethical procedures to protect the student as well as the counselor. As a school counselor, it’s their responsibility to remind teachers, parents, students and administrators about the confidentiality of student records and personal student situations. “Validity need have no relation to time, to duration, to continuity. It is on another plane, judged by other standards. It relates to the actual moment in time and place. “And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place” (Lindbergh, 2005, p. 68). It is not ethical to speak openly and publicly about a student situation out in the open office where an uninvited guest would appear.

Being a school counselor one must have dual relationships. Dual relationships meaning you can be a disciplinarian, a role model and a friend to your students. There is a time to be strict and to remind them of following the rules if one becomes off track and at the same time relate to them on a friendly manner. “I categorize rules according to their logical importanceThere is a process of using my intellect and logical decision making for every social decision” (Grandin, 206, p. 108). A counselor does not want to become enemies with the students, if so the students would not have a confidant to look up to or to visit in time of need. Dual relationship does not mean playing favorites. For instance, if a student I knew fairly well was noticed off campus when they are to be in school, they will be treated the same as if I did not know the student. I would have to approach the student and have them return to school to deal with the situation of being truant. Sometimes students having personal problems the previous week will try to use the manipulation of being out of class and ask to let them slide out of a bad situation, but ethically one cannot. I have to assure the students I do not play favorites. I must treat the students the same at all times. I will then remind the student there is a time and place for everything, and the time they are to be in school is the time when they should be on campus. They must follow the rules just like all of us as they experience personal and social transitions when growing up. Students must understand that counselors have a dual relationship and they must also understand the different roles of all adults at the school site.

In counseling students that intend to danger themselves or others, may be a situation where an ethical decision may be required on the spot, and immediate medical attention necessary. “Suicide rates for adolescents have risen more than 300% since the 1950’s, yet the rates for the population in general have remained relatively stable” (King, 2001, p. 56). “It is estimated that 700 of every 100,000 individuals self-mutilate.researchers indicate that 53% of a social worker’s teen case load includes some form of self-destructive behavior, with 14 to 16 year olds comprising the largest group” (Froeschle, 2004, p. 1). With these rates, as a counselor, I think it ethical to have an employee of the crisis center visit the classrooms as a guest speaker. If one notices a student sad or depressed, the student should be approached and spoken to. At some time in the conversation if the feeling is just not right, and one feels the student may be suicidal or cause danger on themselves, parents must be called upon to assist with the situation. If parents cannot decide what the right decision to make, a school counselor, after consultation with school administration, must advise the parents of a possible 72 hour hold for the safety of the student.

Making ethical decisions is a daily, ongoing practice for school counselors, and it involves continuous commitment to serving the best interest of the students you are to serve. School counselors will continually be challenged with ethical dilemmas involving confidentiality, dual relationships, and cases of students that wish to danger themselves or others. We must treat them with respect and integrity. In return, they will confide in us and speak to us freely. As coworkers are my friends, students are my friends as well on a professional level. Once students trust their role models, that trust must never be broken. “The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things, by background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take from my children and husband, to share with my friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen” (Lindbergh, 2005, p. 17) and most recently as a school counselor!

Froeschle, J. (2004). Just cut it out: legal and ethical challenges in counseling students who self-mutilate. Professional School Counseling.
Grandin, T. (2006). Thinking in pictures. My life with autism. New York: Random House, Inc.
King, K. A. (2001). Tri-level suicide prevention covers it all. Education Digest, 67, 55-61.
Kitchener, K. S. (2000). Foundations of ethical practice, research, and teaching in psychology. Mahway, N J: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lindberg, A. M. (2005). Gift from the Sea. New York: Pantheon Books.