How Much Should You Share About a Student?

It's a back-to-school special edition of the Ethicist when a high-school guidance counselor wonders exactly how much information she needs to pass on about her students' disciplinary problems.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This is the time of year when kids are heading off to college, leaving parents and teachers behind and getting adjusted to life in the dorms. For some, the adjustment can be difficult. This week with ethicist Randy Cohen we'll hear from a listener who has serious concerns about a college-bound kid. Randy joins us now from our New York studios. Hello again, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Our letter comes from Kathleen, who asked that we not use her last name. We have her on the line now. Hello, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hello, how are you?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. You're a high school guidance counselor.

KATHLEEN: I am.

ELLIOTT: And you're worried about one of your students?

KATHLEEN: This happens more often than - more than just one student. But this one in particular sort of surfaced this year, as I have a student who was prone to almost pathological theft, and if you were alone in the room with this student you had to hide your purse. If the student was being tutored by a teacher, money would disappear. And the student was disciplined. There was suspensions involved and so forth, and the student was also under psychiatric care.

But the problem with recommending the student for college was how much of that information would I be obligated ethically to reveal? You want to write an honest letter of recommendation about a student, and his academics were very strong, but yet you also don't want to unnecessarily impose this person on a roommate, a dorm mate, who is going to find his valuable possessions disappearing rapidly.

ELLIOTT: Did you write a letter of recommendation for this student?

KATHLEEN: Absolutely.

ELLIOTT: What did you say in the letter?

KATHLEEN: Concentrated on the student's academics, which is what I'm supposed to do.

ELLIOTT: But don't you have some sort of an obligation to mention the suspensions as well?

KATHLEEN: Well, no, not if the school doesn't ask. Some schools will ask you to comment on whether or not a student has been suspended, in which case you would obviously have to tell them that, yes, the student has been suspended. But other than that, I don't think so. I mean it's not our policy in the school to volunteer information about a student who may have been suspended, because the variety of reasons for suspension can be extensive.

And our position in discussing it was, if the student is under psychiatric care, wouldn't we be violating our ethical consideration for the student by giving information that may in fact be remediated. So we weren't really sure ethically. Legally I don't think I'm supposed to say anything about the student's suspensions.

ELLIOTT: So you wrote the letter, this student did get accepted to the college, and as far as you know, the college has no idea about this student's record.

KATHLEEN: Right.

ELLIOTT: Randy, shouldn't someone from the faculty have at least warned this college that this student came with a history of a problem here?

Mr. COHEN: I agree that if the student represents an imminent, serious threat to other students, that's something that must be reported, but it needn't necessarily be reported as part of the application process.

It seems to me you could satisfy your obligations, your professional obligations, your obligations to respect the student's privacy, and write an honest letter of recommendation if you only mentioned any of this after the student had already been accepted. Then you can write - get in touch with the people at the residence hall and report this, if you are legally entitled to. That's the caveat here. I'm not sure what privacy laws govern you here.

But as an ethical matter, why not just tell them after the fact? You have someone coming into your residence halls. Here is particular conduct. If you're permitted to, if these records aren't sealed, and you can report particular conduct that might indicate a threat to other students, tell the people at the residence hall after the kid's already gotten in.

KATHLEEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COHEN: I would also think that it would be prudent for the parents to alert the school once a student gets in that if they anticipate a problem that they might want the school to look out for it, for the best interest of their child, too.

KATHLEEN: Right.

ELLIOTT: What do you think you'll do, Kathleen?

KATHLEEN: Well, recognizing the fact that this is psychological problem, this is not a financial need, I - way back in talking to the student - indicated that perhaps if he feels that he has not combated this, that perhaps ask for a single room as opposed to having a roommate, perhaps notify the R.A. or someone in higher authority. Not necessarily all the kids on the floor, because I don't necessarily think the student has to bring his unpleasant baggage with him if he feels that he has conquered the problem.

But on the other hand, I think that someone there should, as Randy said, be sort of looking out for him. But at this point, the student has graduated, and it's, you know, sort of out of my hands.

But again, as guidance counselors we have these debates constantly as to how much information we provide under legal constraints.

Mr. COHEN: Right. And this sort of ethical guideline in the end is, when there's an imminent serious threat to a particular person, you have in my view an ethical duty to come forward.

KATHLEEN: Right.

Mr. COHEN: That is to prevent future harm. I'm not so sure that the case you're describing would rise to that level. There seems to be no physical threat as...

KATHLEEN: No, definitely not. It's pilfering.

Mr. COHEN: And it sounds like the parents and the student are determined to come to grips with this, which is a great thing. So if you can urge them to give the residence hall people a heads-up...

KATHLEEN: Right.

Mr. COHEN: ...that sounds like they might be responsive to that.

ELLIOTT: Kathleen thanks for writing to the ethicist.

KATHLEEN: Oh, thank you very much for listening to me and for giving me your advice. I appreciate it.

ELLIOTT: If you'd like advice from Randy Cohen, drop us a line. Go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us, select Weekend All Things Considered, put the word ethics in the subject line and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, good to talk to you again.

Mr. COHEN: Thanks a lot, Debbie.

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