ERIC Identifier: ED315709
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Huey, Wayne C. - Remley, Theodore P., Jr.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Ethical and Legal Issues in School Counseling. Highlights: An
School counselors often ask questions such as, "What should I have done in
that situation?" or "Did I do the right thing?" This desire for information and
feedback regarding difficult cases was reiterated by respondents to a Membership
Survey conducted by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) in 1988,
wherein the need for ethics information was ranked among the top concerns. Why
are we seeing this ongoing interest in ethical and legal issues? Why are we
seeing an increase in the literature in these areas? It is hoped that the
counseling profession as a whole is becoming more aware of, and sensitive to,
the need for ethical practice; that is, the importance of practicing ethically
within the law. Perhaps the increase in litigation involving educators and
mental health practitioners is a factor. Certainly the laws are changing or at
least are being interpreted differently, requiring counselors to stay
up-to-date. The process of decision-making and some of the more complex issues
in ethical and legal areas are summarized in this digest.
Ethical decisions are usually not clear-cut; they tend to be in the "gray
areas" rather than in "black and white." Furthermore, the "right" answer in one
situation is not necessarily the "right" answer in a similar case at another
time. As society changes, the issues change; and, indeed, as counselors change,
their perspectives change. If we understand and accept the fact that ultimately
counselors will have to struggle with themselves to determine the appropriate
action in each situation, then we realize the importance of ethical and legal
awareness and sensitivity. We then also understand the need for periodic
re-examination of the issues throughout our professional lives (Huey &
The importance of knowing the contents of
professional codes of conduct and the purposes and limitations of such codes is
essential to the understanding of ethical and legal issues in school counseling.
Although detailed memorization of the ethical codes is not required, school
counselors should have at least a basic understanding of their ethical
responsibilities as defined in these documents (Huey, 1987).
The ethical standards of ASCA and the American Association for Counseling and
Development (AACD) present school counselors with the behaviors to which they
should aspire and give general guidelines for addressing difficult issues. They
do not, however, necessarily provide answers to the many specific dilemmas that
practitioners will face. When the standards do not provide enough direction,
counselors are encouraged to consult with colleagues, professional experts, and
perhaps their administrative supervisors before taking action.
Almost all professionals, at some point in their career, suspect or become
aware of a colleague's unethical behavior. School counselors are obligated to
address any conduct by a colleague that could cause harm to clients. Counselors
should: (a) try to resolve the issue by confronting the colleague directly, if
possible; (b) report the behavior to a superior, professional association, or
credentialing authority if a direct confrontation is not possible or is not
effective; and (c) take steps to protect any vulnerable clients.
PRIVACY, CONFIDENTIALITY, AND PRIVILEGED
Confidentiality and privileged communication are two related
issues that school counselors often confuse. Information clients relate to
school counselors should be kept confidential with the following general
exceptions: (a) the client is a danger to self or others; (b) the client or
parent requests that information be related to a third party; or, (c) a court
orders a counselor to disclose information.
Although all school counselors have a confidentiality responsibility, very
few relationships with students are considered privileged. Privileged
communication is granted only by statute and guarantees clients that a court
cannot compel a counselor to disclose information related in confidence. Such
statutory privileges belong to clients rather than to counselors, and most
states do not grant privileged communication in school counseling relationships.
Legal standards of practice are different from
ethical standards. Generally, legal standards are related to accepted
professional practices in the community while ethical standards tend to be
Many schools have policies that differentiate between the rights of custodial
and noncustodial parents, and school counselors are often required to implement
such policies. The law is clear that, barring a specific court order to the
contrary, noncustodial parents have all rights regarding their children except
the right to have custody of the children permanently in their homes.
When federal legislation known as the 1978 Hatch Amendment was passed and
revised regulations were issued in 1984, a great deal of misinterpretation
occurred that inhibited the offering of school counseling services. Eventually
it was realized that the amendment's requirement of written parental consent for
children to participate in certain school programs covered only a narrow range
of activities that were federally funded, were experimental in nature, and
involved psychological tests or treatment.
School counselors often play a major role in administering the school's
testing program. School counselors should provide expert advice to school
policymakers regarding the appropriate use of tests. Counselors should assist in
evaluating each test to determine whether it: (1) discriminates in any way
against any segment of the school population, (2) is valid and reliable, (3) is
appropriate for the purposes for which it is being used, and (4) is necessary to
achieve the school's objectives. Moreover, the counselor is responsible for
interpreting test results for students in a clear and understandable manner.
The laws regarding abortions for minors are changing (Talbutt, 1983).
Generally, school counselors may discuss a student's decision of whether to seek
an abortion with the student, but they should also encourage parental
involvement when possible. Each case must be decided individually based on the
facts as presented.
THE SCHOOL COUNSELOR AND CHILD ABUSE
In most states, school
counselors are obligated to report suspected cases of child abuse. While the
mandate is clear, issues must be resolved such as appropriate reporting
procedures, relationships with investigators and prosecutors, and appropriate
interactions with the family.
ETHICAL ISSUES IN GROUP WORK
Group counseling presents
ethical issues not found in individual interventions with clients. The
advantages of a comprehensive group counseling program are numerous; however,
school counselors who direct such programs need to be familiar with potential
Although group counseling in general presents special problems, providing
group counseling for children introduces issues not found when working with
adults. Although the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (1984) does
not directly address group counseling, some specific guidelines are found in the
AACD Ethical Standards (1988). The ASGW Ethical Guidelines for Group Counselors
(1989) provides additional direction.
Computers. School counseling offices are
increasingly utilizing computers and computer products. School counselors have
made attempts to understand and utilize this modern technology, but many
counselors are still unaware of the ethical issues involved in the use of
computers. It is imperative that professional associations develop ethical
standards regarding computer use. Moreover, the importance of direct
counselor-client contact in conjunction with the use of computers must be
Cultural diversity. School counselors have a responsibility to provide
services for all students, including those from other cultures. The counseling
profession is a Western culture phenomenon; however, school counselors
constantly interact with families and children who speak languages other than
English, adhere to values different from those of the counselor, and conform to
social expectations that may seem odd to the American school environment. The
unique ethical issues involved in counseling multi-cultural populations need to
Research. There is an increasing demand for school counselors to engage in
field-based research. Documenting program effectiveness can do more to promote
school counseling than all public relations efforts combined. But even if school
counselors never conduct research themselves, they need to know the rights of
students involved in research projects, the responsibilities of researchers, and
other research-related ethical issues.
Sexual intimacy. Perhaps the most pressing ethical problem in the counseling
profession is sexual intimacy with clients. School counselors are involved less
often in sexual relationships with clients than are their colleagues who counsel
adults. Nevertheless, clients, no matter what their age, often introduce sexual
dimensions into the counseling relationship. Counselors who are faced with sex
and intimacy boundary issues in their professional counseling roles must respond
in a manner that is consistent with ethical guidelines.
An interactive dialogue about ethical dilemmas
generally provides the best framework for learning and professional growth
(Larrabee & Terres, 1985). State departments of education, local school
systems, and counselor education departments are strongly encouraged to offer
courses, workshops, and programs on ethical and legal issues. The ASCA Ethics
Committee is available as a resource to help plan and implement such programs.
Inquiries should be addressed to the ASCA Ethics Committee, American School
Counselor Association, 5999 Stevenson Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304.
American Association for Counseling and
Development. (1988). Ethical standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.
American School Counselor Association. (1984). Ethical standards for school counselors. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Association for Specialists in Group Work. (1989). Ethical guidelines for group counselors. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Huey, W. C. (1987). Ethical standards for school counselors: Test your knowledge. The School Counselor, 34, 331-335.
Huey, W. C., & Remley, Jr., T. P. (1988). Ethical and legal issues in school counseling. Alexandria, VA: American School Counselor Association.
Larrabee, M. J., & Terres, C. K. (Eds.). (1985). Ethical and legal issues [Special issue]. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 19(3), 181-189.
Talbutt, L. C. (1983). Current legal trends regarding abortions for minors: A dilemma for counselors. The School Counselor, 31, 120-124.