Abortion Debate: Do the Schools Have A Role in Counseling Girls?
A teenage girl enters a school counselor's office. She's pregnant and wondering what to do. Too afraid to tell her parents, she asks the counselor if she has any options.
Is it appropriate for the counselor to present a range of alternatives— including abortion—without her parents' knowledge or consent?
That question elicits differing responses from groups that represent school counselors and education policymakers. And it appears that few school districts or states have formal policies to guide staff members on this morally charged and politically explosive issue.
Yet such situations can escalate into painful ethical dilemmas for counselors and legal nightmares for school boards and administrators. A Pennsylvania district, for instance, was sued in just such a case.
"I don't think it's the counselor's job to discuss abortion or adoption, because it's usually not the counselor who gets sued—it's the school district," said Michael Wessley, the manager of the national education policy network at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "I just don't think the school can become the parent."
Although the NSBA has no official guidelines for such scenarios, Mr. Wessley recommends a policy in which counselors are required to refer the student immediately to an outside agency or her parents.
Others argue that such an approach is too rigid and doesn't take into account the emotional state of the pregnant teenager or the circumstances under which she became pregnant.
Mark Kuranz, the president of the American School Counselors Association, also located in Alexandria, said that "good counseling practice says you tell kids all the possibilities, then they make the choices." He added, however, that it should be a top priority to persuade the girl to get her parents involved.
Theodore Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md., echoes those sentiments. "We try to really present options and, where the situation is appropriate, to invite the student to involve the parents," he said.
As it is, only a handful of districts appear to have official, written policies to guide school staff members on how, or whether, to address the question of abortion in a counseling situation. In fact, some national organizations— including the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., and the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.—said they had no advice to offer schools.
Parents File Lawsuit
But the reality is that counselors, school administrators, and district policymakers may need more guidance on the issue.
Last year, the parents of a girl who had become pregnant while enrolled in a Pennsylvania school district sued the district and a high school counselor. They claimed that the counselor had told their daughter that abortion was an option and then helped her get one. This month, in response to the outcome of that case—in which the district was required to craft a policy to address such situations, but the counselor was allowed to keep his job—a nearby district is considering a similar policy.
The parents of Stephanie Carter, a student at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Horsham, Pa., filed a lawsuit last year against the 5,300-student Hatboro-Horsham district and guidance counselor William Hickey. Mr. Hickey is one of six guidance counselors at the school, which enrolls 1,600 students.
District officials and the guidance counselor declined to comment on the lawsuit for this story.
But Mr. Hickey's lawyer, Michael I. Levin, said that the counselor's version of what had happened "was significantly different than what the plaintiffs claimed."
Mr. Levin said the dispute was largely over Mr. Hickey's role regarding the parents' right to notification, rather than the advice he allegedly gave their daughter, who was 17.
The district settled the suit in March of last year by implementing a policy shortly thereafter stating that school employees "shall not in any manner encourage any ... student to obtain an abortion" or "assist or aid and abet any ... student in obtaining an abortion." However, the settlement stipulated that the policy "does not prevent discussion or explanation of abortion."
As part of the settlement, the girl's parents received $20,000.
The lawsuit drew the attention of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. After the settlement, the PSBA encouraged all districts in the state to institute policies addressing such situations.
Robert Cormany, the association's executive director, said "it's just good sense to have a policy on such an important issue."
But so far, Mr. Cormany said, only Hatboro-Horsham and the neighboring North Penn school district, which are both just north of Philadelphia, have adopted or moved to enact such policies. "I can't say why more haven't done it," he said.
Nationwide Policy Vacuum
Most of the organizations that were called for this story were not aware of the Hatboro-Horsham case. They also were not aware of any other school districts that had written policies in place to guide school officials on the issue of abortion counseling.
Judith Harrigan, the training coordinator for the National Association of School Nurses in Castle Rock, Colo., said that she believes "the vast majority of districts don't have a policy, and those that do are the ones that got burned by a parent."
She said school nurses have told her that "sometimes it's better to do what they have been doing rather than to have a policy that might prohibit them" from doing what they believe to be right.
Michael McGee, the vice president for education at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, based in New York City, said he was unaware of any national guidelines that would help schools deal with such questions.
The education community's reluctance to confront the issue may be due in part, he said, to the fact that "schools have a very low tolerance for controversy."
At first, Mr. McGee said it was "not the school's business to be involved in counseling for pregnancy." But he later qualified his position, saying that "limiting young people's options to talk to a trusted adult is a mistake."
He said a counselor should support the parents as the primary source of information unless the girl involved felt she had to run away or otherwise go to dangerous lengths to avoid telling her parents about her pregnancy.
Patricia Bast Lyman, a lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal-advocacy organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., represented Stephanie Carter's parents, Howard and Marie Carter, in the Hatboro-Horsham suit. Ms. Bast Lyman said that "if job one is making sure that parents are involved, we can avoid a lot of heartache."
What's more, the ACLJ lawyer argues that every school should be governed by a local policy or state law that would prevent situations similar to the one that occurred in Pennsylvania. In South Carolina, for example, a state education law prohibits schools from counseling students on abortion.
In Virginia, state education officials have taken a less formal approach.
Gwen Smith, the school health specialist for the Virginia Department of Education, said that her state does not have a written policy to guide school officials on how they should handle situations in which pregnant teenagers seek counseling from school employees.
But, Ms. Smith said, Virginia has an unwritten expectation that school officials not counsel students about abortion. Instead, she said, schools are expected to immediately refer any pregnant girls who need counseling to a social services agency or their parents.
Mr. Feinberg of the school psychologists' association cautioned that parental involvement is "not appropriate where a parent's reaction might be problematic in terms of a history of abuse or explosive reactions." He recommends a policy that would not mandate parental involvement in those situations.
Seventeen states require that medical personnel obtain parental consent before performing an abortion on a minor; in four other states, such laws have been temporarily blocked by state or federal court rulings. In 14 states, the law simply requires that medical personnel notify parents if a minor is seeking an abortion; such notification laws in six other states have been temporarily blocked by state or federal courts.
According to the New York City-based Alan Guttmacher Institute, which provided those figures, the nine remaining states and the District of Columbia require neither parental notification or consent.
Crafting Local Policy
North Penn school board member Terry Prykowski said that although she and her fellow board members had not heard of the PSBA's recommendation that Pennsylvania districts devise policies on abortion-related counseling, she initiated consideration of a policy in her 13,300-student district because of what had happened in the Hatboro-Horsham district.
The policy has been in the works by the policy committee of the North Penn board for a year. Three weeks ago, the committee voted to move the draft to the full nine-member board's work session. If the policy is approved, it will be up for final adoption by the board on March 15.
Ms. Prykowski said that she asked the committee to pull and rewrite the policy at one point because, she said, it was becoming a "gag order" for school officials, preventing any discussion of abortion with students. Her goal was to make sure parental rights were respected, Ms. Prykowski said, but not to restrict school employees' discussions with students.
She believes that the final committee draft succeeded in addressing the issue of getting parents involved, but that it would not prevent school officials from discussing abortion with students.
Donna Mengel, the chairwoman of the policy committee of the North Penn school board, emphasized that "I believe this policy will prevent teachers from brokering abortions."
Both the Hatboro-Horsham policy and the proposed North Penn policy prohibit employees from helping a student obtain an abortion, but neither explicitly prohibits abortion counseling.
The North Penn draft, however, states that "it shall be the policy of the North Penn school district to encourage parental involvement in all student decisions relating to pregnancy." The Hatboro-Horsham policy focuses almost entirely on prohibiting employees from helping a student obtain an abortion.
'A Rock and a Hard Place'
On the national level, the divergent perspectives of leading organizations could make it hard to craft model policies on the issue.
Policy experts such as Mr. Wessley of the NSBA stress the need to protect schools from potential lawsuits and to honor the role of parents by discouraging staff members from discussing pregnancy-related options at all with students.
Both the school counselors' and school psychologists' associations insist that their members should be able to present a pregnant girl with options such as abortion and adoption and then focus on persuading the student to talk them over with her parents. Experts such as Mr. McGee say that curbs on discussions with school employees could leave a girl with no adult to talk to if she is afraid to talk to her parents.
The absence of clearly articulated school policies, meanwhile, could pose problems for all concerned, some experts say.
It's one of those "between-a-rock-and-a-hard- place kinds of situations," Mr. Wessley said.
Vol. 20, Issue 25, Pages 1, 14Published in Print: March 7, 2001, as Abortion Debate: Do the Schools Have A Role in Counseling Girls?