How to maintain confidentiality during online counseling sessions

Educators and administrators must be clear about confidentiality constraints involved in conducting online counseling sessions and social-skills groups

For students with autism, anxiety or another issue being addressed through counseling or a social-skills group when school was in session, service providers may be duplicating the activity online using videoconferencing software.

Just keep in mind confidentiality challenges that may emerge.

“Some of these kids are not going to see another student or be in contact with another student for weeks or months,” says Mark Sommaruga, a school attorney at Pullman & Comley LLC in Hartford, Conn. “You want to provide as many opportunities to learn as possible under the circumstances. But you have to set expectations. You have to use common sense.”

Below are some considerations you should make before conducting an online group session:

– Don’t worry about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. As long as you are continuing to deliver the same educational and related services under the IDEA online that you were offering in person, they should not implicate protections under HIPAA, as such services are instead covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Sommaruga says. “In my humble [opinion], that doesn’t change because it’s being offered remotely. You should provide these services under the same rules as you were providing them in person.”

– Set expectations for privacy and decorum. Encourage students and their families to create a space for a student to participate in a group videoconference as free from distraction as possible, Sommaruga says. This may be in a corner or separate room from the rest of the household. You must also find as private an area as possible to facilitate it. Students may not participate in the same way if you have things going on behind you. Remind students that although they may be open about their feelings with each other, they must still maintain confidentiality by not sharing anything about another student with their family members or others. They must also not interrupt each other during the session.

Consider posting information about FERPA obligations on the district website, which would also cover the social-skills or counseling group videoconference sessions you are facilitating. “Indicate what opportunities are provided and the nature of them and a general description of the platform you’re using,” he says. “Let parents know how they can contact you if they have questions. Also share the protocol you will follow if there’s any kind of breach of confidentiality.”

– Discourage students and parents from recording sessions. Advise parents and students against recording group videoconference sessions because of the risk of violating state and federal wiretapping laws, not to mention privacy rights, Sommaruga says. “Tell parents that may be a crime.” The school may consider whether it wishes to record its online sessions. If so, let the parents know that if their child misses a session and needs to catch up on your tips, the school can share a recording with the student. If anything sensitive was discussed as a group that a particular student doesn’t want getting out beyond the session, you may want to honor the student’s concerns and do some editing. If you record, always remind students before each session begins that it is being recorded for your clinical purposes.

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– Address breaches of confidentiality. If a parent or someone else gains unauthorized access to a group session, document your understanding of the breach and talk with students and parents about how you will prevent similar problems in the future, Sommaruga says. “If you mistakenly violated a student’s privacy rights one time, you will get a letter from the Education Department saying, ‘Just don’t do it again.’ ”

“Otherwise,” Sommaruga says, “if you’re not providing adequate educational opportunities through these groups, you could have a larger problem down the line. You want to minimize the need for compensatory education later on as best as you can now.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

DA’s full coverage of coronavirus-related school closures can be found here.

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