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W&M counseling students win ethics competition

  • Winning team
    Winning team
    The winning team included (left to right) doctoral students Jessica Lloyd-Hazlett, Eleni M. Honderich and Richelle Joe. Professor Rick Gressard (second from right) supported the effort.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

A professor in a relationship with a student. A student with a history of substance abuse. A request for help on social media.

A team of William & Mary doctoral students with the support of Professor Rick Gressard recently confronted the ethical dilemmas raised by this fictional scenario to win top honors in the American Counseling Association’s Graduate Student Ethics Competition.

The entry created by Eleni M. Honderich, Jessica Lloyd-Hazlett and Richelle Joe – all students in the School of Education’s Counselor Education Program – earned first place on the doctoral level of the ACA competition. The association is the world’s largest membership organization for counseling professionals.

“I like ethics,” said Honderich. “It’s essential to our field and what we do because it’s about protecting our profession, protecting our clients. I think it’s very important, so it’s something that fascinates me.”

The annual competition presents students with a scenario and then asks them to write a brief response to it, identifying the ethical dilemmas and proposing a course of action.

This time, the scenario included a counseling professor who was having a relationship with a doctoral student whom he was supervising.

“Another student became aware of that relationship and also became aware that the student having the relationship with the professor might also have some substance abuse issues,” said Joe. “There was also another element related to it about the use of social media because the professor asked the young lady he was in a relationship with to help create a Facebook page for his personal practice.”

The William & Mary team identified several ethical issues with the scenario, starting with the professor’s relationship with his student, which they said is a blatant violation of the ethical code. However, they also looked at the larger ramifications of such a relationship.

“We explored that but also looked at it in terms of the impact that it could have on the clients,” said Joe. “If the student was seeing clients and she was receiving supervision from someone she was in a relationship with, she might not receive the supervision that was appropriate for her to provide the services to the client.”

“Lack of objectivity is an issue, so the supervisor may not be objective in how they are viewing the counselor’s work,” added Gressard.

Honderich noted that the team also took it one step further to explore the potential impact on the counseling program and its other students.

“If they are in supervision or class with said professor, they might be interacting on a superficial level, and it might just thwart their own development,” she said.

In addition to exploring the relationship between the professor and student, the team also identified ethical dilemmas regarding the student’s history of substance abuse and the other student who became aware of the relationship. The team members also explored potential issues stemming from the use of social media, including concerns about client confidentiality and boundaries between counseling professionals and clients.

Social media is something that the current ACA code, released in 2005, does not address. A revised ACA code is expected to be released this year, said Gressard.

“So we used the parts of the code that talk about the use of technology and also pulled in from the code of ethics for the National Board of Certified Counselors, which is more current and does address some of those social media issues,” said Joe. “What the codes say is that if you are going to use the Internet or that form of technology that there should be consultation with legal professionals, technical professionals and there wasn’t any of that. He asked a student, who may be well versed in that, but doesn’t provide the kind of counsel that he would have needed.”

The team members believe that their creative approach to confronting the ethical dilemmas in the scenario, especially the ones that aren’t currently addressed by ACA codes, may have helped them take the top spot in the competition.

“We really examined the issues in-depth, not just from the component of, hey, this is ethical or unethical but what are the implications for said ethical dilemma upon the student and -- taking it a step further -- how does it impact our profession,” Honderich said.

According to Gressard, this is the first time that a doctoral-level team from William & Mary has won first place in the competition, but just entering is a feat in itself.

“It’s the end of the semester, and it requires an incredible amount of work to do well,” he said. “Just entering, I think, is a significant accomplishment.”

However, the win will no doubt be a great addition to each student’s curriculum vitae, Gressard noted, adding that he is “extremely proud” of the team.

“You see something like that, and one thing I know about this person is they really know their stuff when it comes to ethics,” he said. “I think it’s a significant plus for them in the future.”