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A middle school counselor at a large, suburban public school in the United States has been meeting weekly for one-hour sessions with a 13-year old male student in the seventh grade for aggressive behavior such as shoving, verbally disrespecting, and threatening classmates with physical violence when he is feeling anxious or frustrated. During the fifth weekly session in the counseling office, the student admits to the counselor that he has been encouraged by his father to enlist his two best friends and engage in a fight, after school and off campus, with two eighth grade boys who have been bullying him for months, both at school and cyberbullying through social media sites. The student feels uncertain and conflicted about this suggestion, but wants to obey and please his father and to appear brave and bold; therefore, he has a plan in place to meet the boys in a wooded park near the school later that day. The student reports that his mother is aware and supportive of the situation, but the counselor believes the student is lying about that. What, if anything, should the school counselor do to prevent the student and his friends from engaging in a fight with the bullies? Should the counselor contact the student’s father to discuss the situation and/or should the counselor alert the student’s mother? The parents have been divorced since the student was nine years old and the two do not currently have an amicable relationship, though they do civilly share joint custody of their son.
The school counselor turned to the ACA and ASCA codes of ethics for guidance. Following are three pertinent passages from the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors (2016) and one from the ACA Code of Ethics (2014):
A.2.e. Keep information confidential unless legal requirements demand that confidential information be revealed or a breach is required to prevent serious and foreseeable harm to the student. Serious and foreseeable harm is different for each minor in schools and is determined by students’ developmental and chronological age, the setting, parental rights and the nature of the harm. School counselors consult with appropriate professionals when in doubt as to the validity of an exception.
A.9.a. Inform parents/guardians and/or appropriate authorities when a student poses a serious and foreseeable risk of harm to self or others. When feasible, this is to be done after careful deliberation and consultation with other appropriate professionals. School counselors inform students of the school counselor’s legal and ethical obligations to report the concern to the appropriate authorities unless it is appropriate to withhold this information to protect the student (e.g. student might run away if he/she knows parents are being called). The consequence of the risk of not giving parents/guardians a chance to intervene on behalf of their child is too great. Even if the danger appears relatively remote, parents should be notified.
A.11.a. School counselors report to the administration all incidents of bullying, dating violence and sexual harassment as most fall under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 or other federal and state laws as being illegal and require administrator interventions. School counselors provide services to victims and perpetrator as appropriate, which may include a safety plan and reasonable accommodations such as schedule change, but school counselors defer to administration for all discipline issues for this or any other federal, state or school board violation.
B.1.d. Explanation of Limitations: At initiation and throughout the counseling process, counselors inform clients of the limitations of confidentiality and seek to identify situations in which confidentiality must be breached.
I have chosen to approach this dilemma through the Solutions to Ethical Problems in Schools (STEPS) ethical-decision-making model, a school-specific method that involves nine steps: (1) Defining the problem emotionally and intellectually; (2) applying the ASCA ethical code and the legal issues; (3) considering the student’s chronological and developmental levels; (4) considering the setting, parental rights and minor’s rights; (5) applying the moral principle; (6) determining a potential course of action and its consequences, (7) evaluating the selected action; (8) consulting with peers; and (9) implementing the selected course of action (Stone, 2005). The first two steps were covered in the sections above.
Consider the student’s chronological and developmental levels. The student is 13 years and three months of age — in the middle of puberty. His rational decision-making skills are not yet fully-developed, and he is confused by the advice of his father which goes against what he has learned and what he believes to be “right”. This student’s underlying issue is an inability to express difficult feelings in a healthy and productive manner, which causes a tendency toward aggression.
Consider the setting, parental rights and minor’s rights. The information was divulged in a confidential counseling session. However, in accordance with ACA code B.1.d. (Explanation of Limitations), the counselor is responsible for communicating the limitation of confidentiality in this case, as the student is actively planning to put himself and others in harm’s way.
Apply the moral principle. The professional involved in this situation must focus, first and foremost, on protecting and promoting the good for the student in this case.
Determine a potential course of action and its consequences. Clearly, the boy’s plans to engage in a fistfight after school needs to be cancelled. The counselor should immediately call the boy’s mother and father and ask them to come in that day for an urgent meeting, with both the student and school administrator present. If this is not possible, the counselor should attempt to have a phone meeting with both parents. The two older boys accused of bullying the student in counseling also need to be interviewed.
Evaluate the selected action. Consider and be prepared for the possibility that the father will defend his misguided advice to his son, as, according to the student, his rationale was that the fight would, once and for all, end the internal torture that the bullying was causing in his son.
Consult with peers. The counselor needs to inform the other school counselors and administrators of this issue with the student so that a team of professionals can monitor the situation, responding with appropriate consequences in the event of further bullying.
Implement the selected course of action. If it is not possible to meet with one or both parents that same day, arrange for the boy to be escorted home by a parent or school official so that the proposed fight will not be able to occur.
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