Iowa's High Court Holds Counselors Liable

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A high school counselor can be sued for dispensing academic advice that has an adverse effect on a student, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled last week in a decision that a dissenting judge warned could put a damper on academic counseling.

The court ruled 5-2 that Larry Bowen, a former guidance counselor at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, could be held liable for advising then-senior Bruce E. Sain in 1995 to enroll in a course called "Technical Communications."

Mr. Sain, who completed the course, later won a full scholarship to play basketball for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill.

After graduation, Mr. Sain learned that the National Collegiate Athletic Association did not approve the communications course, and he lost his scholarship.

Mr. Sain sued the Cedars Rapids school system for negligence, but a state district court judge dismissed the suit, saying the case amounted to "educational malpractice" which is not grounds for the suit.

The state supreme court in Des Moines reversed the lower court's ruling and sent the case back for trial.

Guidance counselors are liable for providing information to students about credits and courses needed to pursue "post-high school goals," Justice Mark S. Cady wrote for the majority.

A 'Discouraging' Decision

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Linda K. Neuman wrote that the court's decision "spells disaster for the law." She warned that the court's decision will open the "floodgates" and could be applied to all students, not just athletes.

"Instead of encouraging sound academic guidance, today's decision will discourage advising altogether," Ms. Neuman wrote.

Matt Novak, the lawyer for the 18,000-student Cedar Rapids district, said that Mr. Bowen denies having talked to Mr. Bain about his NCAA eligibility.

Northern Illinois and other Iowa colleges accepted the communications course for college admission, Mr. Novak said. And the NCAA, he said, later approved the class, without explanation.

"Once the facts become known, no one will place the blame on the counselor," Mr. Novak said. "The student wants the guidance counselor to be held responsible for the NCAA's decision."

Advice vs. Options

Howard B. Smith, the senior director for professional affairs at the American Counseling Association, an Alexandria, Va., membership organization, said the court's ruling could make guidance counselors "a little more skittish."

He added, however: "Counseling is not about advice giving. It's about exploring the options with students and parents."

Vol. 20, Issue 33, Page 14

Published in Print: May 2, 2001, as Iowa's High Court Holds Counselors Liable
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