Washington School Counselor Association


Legal and Ethical Technology Imperatives


Legal and Ethical Technology Imperatives
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Your district expects you to answer e-mail after school hours. You are concerned about the legal and ethical implications of being available 24 hours a day/seven days a week. Should you be concerned?

Work/life boundaries can easily be blurred as school counselors use communication methods that serve both their personal and professional lives. Having the Internet in the palm of your hand with continuous access to e-mail, social media, student information and web resources has the potential of extending the workday long past school hours. More than half of the respondents (53 percent) in a 2013 study responded that they check e-mail outside of school hours between “moderate” to a “great deal.” Only 4 percent of the respondents reported they never check e-mail outside of regular work hours.

There are legal and ethical implications regarding student safety when creating an expectation for students, parents and administrators that you’ll be available electronically during nonworking hours. Sixty-two percent of respondents in the 2013 study reported they have never received an electronic message from a student after work hours that triggered a safety concern. Ninety percent of those who did receive such an outcry responded immediately. Even though the vast majority of school counselors responded immediately, it is of grave concern that there are those who did not as the consequence of the risk is too great.

It’s unlikely but possible that an argument can be made in a court of law that a legal duty was owed by the school counselor who established a pattern of responding after hours, broke that pattern, and an injury or death occurred. Case history tells us it’s highly unlikely the school counselor would be found guilty of negligence in a student’s suicide, but avoiding the dereliction of duty charge in the first place is best practice by not establishing an around-the-clock pattern of availability.

The normal practice for school counselors when a student is suicidal is constant supervision, but after school hours, the school counselor can’t physically supervise a student while waiting for parental or resource help. For the protection of the school counselor and student, it’s best practice to establish an “away message” on e-mails that clearly communicates available hours and includes emergency resources such as a suicide hotline number. Any practice that involves the potential of harm needs to be consistently implemented, and since it is unsustainable and unfair to expect a school counselor should be available at all hours of the day, the next best thing is to give detailed off-hour resources. Hyper-alertness all hours of the day is the antithesis of downtime, which is necessary for school counselor effectiveness.