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  • Letter from the Editorial Board
  • Meredith Sinclair

During a recent discussion with my class of pre-service teachers, questions of what to do with sensitive student information were raised: When should they “report” things like drug use, pregnancy, sexual activity, abuse, immigration status, illegal activity and when should those things be kept confidential? Is there a legal obligation to report these behaviors? Is there a moral or ethical one? To whom should such behaviors be reported? And what are the implications for a teacher who does or does not report these things?

Every group of pre-service teachers I’ve worked with has posed these questions, and for many, it seems to be one of the issues that they are most concerned about handling properly. The issue is complex. At stake are issues of student trust and confidentiality as well as the teachers’ moral, ethical, professional, and legal responsibilities.

Much of the literature on effective teaching points to building strong relationships with students; the work of Nel Noddings, Angela Valenzuela, and others illustrates the centrality of caring relationships to student success. To build these caring relationships, teachers work to “get to know” their students and work to make themselves available as a caring adult in their lives. At the same time, we live in an increasingly litigious society; my pre-service teachers frequently ask, “Can this get me in trouble?” when considering how they might counsel a student who confided a pregnancy or if they suspected a student of being engaged in illegal activity. Rarely could I provide a clear answer. The line between preserving student trust and fulfilling our moral, ethical, professional, and legal obligations as teachers and as human beings is blurry at best. Moreover, as teachers, we do not always share the same view on what advice is best to give; the counsel one teacher might give a pregnant teen seeking guidance on her options may be drastically different from that offered by another teacher.

Recent events have brought questions of what teachers should and should not do concerning students’ confidential information into the spotlight. In June of 2011, Alabama’s governor signed into law the Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act (HB 56); one provision, Section 28 (currently suspended pending an appeal by the US Department of Justice), of this law requires schools to report the immigration status of all students and their families as part of an effort to crack down on and deport undocumented aliens.

Suddenly my students’ concern about whether or not the immigration status of a student matters becomes much more high stakes. Although the law creates a legal mandate, for some teachers and school officials it also creates a moral dilemma - to report a student or her family as undocumented could lead to deportation or even the splitting of a family. While the bill does not prevent undocumented students from enrolling in and attending public schools in Alabama, the provision’s authors see it as a first step in challenging and reversing the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe which found that denying undocumented children equal access to public schools violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution. The day after the HB 56 became law, Foley Elementary School in Foley, Alabama saw 19 of its 223 Hispanic students withdraw; another 39 were absent. Many of those students who did come to school were confused and afraid – even those who are US citizens. Anti-immigration campaigners have co-opted teachers and school officials as policing agents, [End Page 1] fostering distrust and further alienation of vulnerable families from schools. Should the courts ultimately uphold Section 28, many teachers may find themselves torn between their legal obligation to report students’ immigration status and their moral, ethical, and professional obligations to protect and nurture all students who come through their classroom doors.

The allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a former member of the football coaching staff at Pennsylvania State University illustrate the other end of the spectrum. Much of the outrage has centered around the fact that members of the coaching staff and other university officials knew about the alleged abuse and yet said nothing – a silence...


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