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Q: I just got a new student in my 7th-grade English class. He seems really troubled. He steals supplies, knocks papers off my desk when he’s mad and makes crass sexual comments to the girls. He’s in 7th grade but can barely read. To say he’s disrespectful would be an understatement. When I went to meet with his counselor, she told me nothing. The secretary said he showed up at our school with several boxes of files, and I’m so irritated that his counselor placed him in classes without giving teachers any background information. OK, so now I’m magically supposed to know what to do with this boy? For all I know, he’s got a criminal record. This isn’t the first time she’s told me she can’t breach student confidentiality. Don’t teachers have any rights to background information?

 

A: The short answer is yes, but it’s complicated. School counselors have the challenge of balancing their students’ rights to confidentiality with the legitimate rights and concerns of teachers. Weighing those competing interests isn’t always straightforward. Counselors are consultants to educators and want to provide helpful information about students’ safety and well-being, but they also want to protect their students’ confidentiality. Trust is a critical part of the counselor-student relationship. No child is going to disclose personal information to someone who’s cavalier about their privacy.

That said, there’s no question that teachers need to know about students’ special needs to teach effectively and make a positive impact. At the same time, there’s no need to gratuitously divulge sensitive information. For instance, a counselor might share that a child is prone to rage when he feels incompetent, or that he’s excruciatingly sensitive to loud noises. A teacher wouldn’t need to know the details of every setback that contributed to his fragility. Similarly, the counselor could let a teacher know a student had a very rough night without revealing that his parents fought loudly for hours.

There are instances when counselors must break confidentiality, including when they believe the student’s behavior presents clear and imminent danger to themselves or others. That should give you some comfort. If the counselor did make that type of report, an administrator would be privy to that information even if you’re left in the dark. Speaking of administrators, I assume you’ve been involving one to help you address the inappropriate sexual comments, stealing and disrespect. Counselors don’t get involved in managing discipline because it’s at odds with their role as the student’s advocate. You clearly need all hands on deck to help this boy.

So where does that leave you as far as the counselor is concerned? Laws and ethical guidelines will vary from state to state, and individual counselors will take different approaches. You can try asking her more general questions, such as “What effective strategies have teachers used in the past with this student?” or “what might prevent him from leaving the room every time I ask him to sit and do work?” You can suggest that she ask the child for permission to share details with you. And don’t be afraid to connect with the student on your own. Invite him to lunch and take the time to get to know him. If he opens up and starts to trust you, he may feel less edgy and display more respect in the classroom.

School counselors are charged with protecting students from harm, and that includes respecting their privacy. They only should reveal sensitive information when educators can use it to help a child. That’s a tricky line to walk, and counselors have to rely on their best judgment. I doubt this particular one is trying to torment you by withholding data. As in any situation when you’re frustrated with a colleague, talk to her directly in a nonconfrontational way. She might meet you somewhere in the middle. After all, you both want to help this student adjust and succeed.

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