Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Student Trust is Compromised

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The craziness that comes with college notifications in March has been matched by a different kind of madness in February.  The Daily Pennsylvanian reports a former admissions officer at The University of Pennsylvania posted portions of applicants’ essays to her Facebook page.  If this weren’t bad enough, several of them were accompanied by commentary indicating the officer’s amazement, displeasure, and criticism of the essays (see the article at

If this issue doesn’t set off a fire bell in the head of every school counselor, it’s time to go back on spring break.  Disclosing personal information of any kind is a major violation of client confidentiality, a fundamental part of the counselor- student relationship.  College admissions officers aren’t usually counselors, but they are expected to conduct their work with the same level of respect for the student’s privacy. Posting snippets of application essays online is no better than posting the student’s transcript, even if the students’ names are withheld.

This unprofessional action is made worse when the admissions officer demeans the work of the students.  As the article points out, this breach of professional ethics may lead future applicants—both to Penn and other institutions—to wonder if they can disclose personal information with any assurance it will remain private.  This can put many applicants in a tough bind; offer the sensitive insights explaining a bad grade or a challenging family life and risk having it mocked online, or withhold the information and risk having a college make an admissions decision based on incomplete information.

Penn is wisely declining comment on the matter for now, but the situation offers many lessons for counselors to reflect on and share with their students:

Reassure your students  The Penn incident is getting the attention of counselors and colleges because is it sad—but it’s also garnering attention because it’s rare, and perhaps a first.  Admissions officers may not love every application they read, but they have the professionalism to keep their opinions to themselves—and, with one disheartening exception, the good sense to keep their comments off of social media.  This isn’t a trendsetting precedent others will follow; it’s a mistake that will lead emulators to be fired.  Tell your students the process is safe, and so are they.

Look in the mirror  High schools are close-knit communities, and the most successful high schools create an atmosphere of community support for every student.  At the same time, that closeness can lead to some tough calls with student confidentiality.  How should a counselor respond when a teacher says:
·          “That Jenny is one smart student.  Where’s she applying to college?”
·         “Jim ran two or three ideas past me for his college essay.  Which one did he end up writing about?” 
·         “So, did Eleanor apply for financial aid?”
On the one hand, these are reasonable questions being asked by a colleague.  On the other hand, will the answers to these questions really enhance the teacher’s work with these students, or is this just a well-meaning, but personal, inquiry?

There’s very little chance any school counselor will have to tidy up their social media accounts after hearing about this incident at Penn—but this does provide an opportunity for us to consider when, and where, we share insights into our students’ college plans.

Support your student newspaper  The Daily Pennsylvanian covered this issue with thoughtful research, reflection, and balance—and that only happened because student journalists were allowed to hone their craft.  Keep this in mind the next time a student reporter knocks on your office door, and support the teachable moments that make up student newspapers.

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