In the course of developing relationships with students
and their families, confidential information (about the student or the student’s
family) is often communicated. It becomes necessary for the school social worker
to decipher the (confidential) information that is relevant to the educational
needs of the student. This critical process should not just evaluate information
specific to academics, but should also include information that affects the
social–emotional and mental well-being of the student. If the information
revealed has no relevance to the academic success or social–emotional
development of the student—that is, has no effect on learning—then the school
social worker should evaluate the purpose, if any, of disclosing such
information to others. The crux of the dilemma for school social workers lies in
the finding that the (confidential) information learned has educational
relevance or significance—that is, an effect on learning.
LIMITS OF CONFIDENTIALITY
Confidentiality is a critical element in developing and
maintaining trusting relationships with students. However, "(school) social
workers must accept that they cannot offer their (students) absolute
confidentiality" (Kopels & Kogle, 1994 p.1). It is imperative that this
message be communicated to students (and their families) at the "onset" of
services, because there will undoubtedly be instances when confidential
information needs to be shared with other school personnel and/or collateral or
corroborating agencies. For example, in every state, school social workers are
mandated to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to their local child
protection agency or the police, even when such information is learned in
confidence. Also, if students disclose intent or plans to harm others, this
information must be disclosed. Unfortunately, whether to disclose some other
information may not be as apparent to some school social workers and/or may be
clouded by (state) law and ethics, or the lack thereof. In instances such as
this, it is critical that school social workers be familiar with the legal
rights of minors (in their state) with respect to confidentiality. The minor’s
legal rights will have implications for what information can and cannot be
shared with others. To the extent that it is possible and feasible, school
social workers should involve the student and the student’s family in decisions
to breach confidentiality. There will invariably be instances when school social
workers will need to make decisions about whether to disclose confidential
information when law to do so does not mandate them. The following practice
implications may be helpful in such situations.
School social workers, as agents of the school system and
members of the educational "team," have professional obligations that reach
beyond the student and the student’s family. To be effective in serving and
meeting both the educational and social–emotional needs of the student,
information must be shared and exchanged. First and foremost, the sharing of
confidential information should always "be done in a manner that preserves the
dignity of the [student] and the integrity of the [school] social worker–student
relationship" (Kardon, 1993, p.249). The following are practical steps,
suggestions, and questions to consider in evaluating the need to share
confidential information regarding students.
- Be proactive . . . become familiar with state laws and regulations and
school district policies governing confidentiality and minors, before this
information is needed.
- Become familiar with laws and regulations governing confidentiality and
minors as they pertain to other school personnel (that is, school counselors,
school psychologists, and school nurses). In some states, these regulations
differ from those governing school social workers.
- Develop and use written guidelines for sharing confidential information with
- Develop and use written consent forms for all parties involved with students
when sharing confidential information.
- Maintain written documentation indicating with whom confidential information
has been shared.
- When sharing confidential information, know what information can and cannot
or should or should not be shared.
- Ask the following questions when deciding to share confidential information:
"Why is it important that this information be shared?" "How will the student and
the student’s family benefit by a decision to share or not share information?"
"Does sharing the confidential information outweigh maintaining
confidentiality?" "What will be the effect on the student’s learning?"
- Seek direction on this issue in a wider context through professional
development opportunities or in-service training for a school or school
- Discuss limits of confidentiality with student and student’s family at the
onset of services.
- When possible or appropriate, discuss breaches of confidentiality with the
student and the student’s family in a timely manner.
- Become familiar with limits of confidentiality and "information sharing" as
they pertain to IDEA.
- When preparing social histories for students who receive special education
services under IDEA, include a statement indicating that the information
reported is confidential.
LEGAL AND ETHICAL ISSUES
The school setting has been described as "one of the most
problematic settings for social workers to work in and maintain ‘client’
confidentiality" (Kopels, 1993, p. 251). This is, in large part, due to the
student’s age and the legal and ethical issues governing confidentiality and
minors. In matters of confidentiality, law and ethics reinforce each other. Law
ensures that the client’s rights are guaranteed against those who do not act
from ethical motives; ethics guarantees that the institutional conscience will
transcend law and attend to obligations, whether guaranteed by law or not (NASW,
1991). School social workers, as do social workers in other practice settings,
have a professional obligation to respect the privacy of their clients (NASW,
This practice update recognizes the significance of law and
ethics as they pertain to confidentiality of minors. However, this update is not
intended as a tool to inform the reader on the legal and ethical implications
involved here. Rather, it is the intent of the update to inform school social
workers on practical (practice) considerations regarding confidentiality in
their work with students and students’ families. For a more detailed analysis of
the ethical and legal issues governing school social workers, refer to the NASW
position statement on "school social workers and confidentiality" (NASW,
Jonson–Reid, M. (2000). Understanding
confidentiality in school-based interagency projects. Social Work in
Education, 22, 33–45.
Kardon, S. (1993). Confidentiality: A different
perspective [As Readers See It]. Social Work in Education, 15,
Kopels S. (1993). Response to "Confidentiality: A
different perspective" [As Readers See It]. Social Work in Education, 15,
Kopels, S. (1992). Confidentiality and the school
social worker [Editorial Comments]. Social Work in Education, 14,
Kopels, S., & Kogle, J. (1994). Teaching
confidentiality breaches as a form of discrimination. Arete, 19,
National Association of Social Workers. (1996).
Code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
National Association of Social Workers. (1991).
NASW commission on education position statement: "The school social worker and
confidentiality." Washington, DC:
La Voyce B. Reid, MSW, LCSW
Children, Families, and Schools