Section: News

Peer Counselors aim to regain confidentiality

Peer Counselors aim to regain confidentiality

Photo by Linnea Feldman Emison

In a Sept. 20 meeting with the Peer Counselors (PCs), President Sean Decatur expressed hope that the group could become a confidential resource, and pledged his support to that end. 

“I think the main thing is that they are on the front lines of helping students in crisis,” Decatur said. “Being able to so with some sort of assurance of confidentiality is helpful for both the PCs and also, I think, for the students that they’re serving.”

One potential obstacle to the PCs regaining their confidentiality, however, is that Decatur’s ability to aid them is constrained by both the administrative structure of the College and federal law.

Title IX permits some non-professional counselors to keep confidential information they receive about cases of sexual misconduct. The PCs had this confidentiality status when they were formed in 2012. This year, the College altered its interpretation of which student counseling groups may have confidentiality under Title IX and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Laura Messenger ’16, one of the student leaders of the PCs, said the PCs have never had the same level of confidentiality as the Sexual Misconduct Advisors (SMAs).

“We practiced the sanctity of confidentiality, which basically meant that we would withhold all information that students or community members told us, except if we thought they were a harm to themselves or others,” Messenger said. 

SMAs have legal confidentiality, because members of the group operate collectively under the certification of their faculty advisor, College Counselor Nicole Keller. Messenger said College Counselor Lindsay Miller, faculty advisor of the PCs, would need to obtain a supervisor’s certification on her own license for the PCs to have legal confidentiality, although that is not guaranteed to secure it.

Christina Franzino ’16, who is both a PC and a co-leader of the SMAs, said the two organizations also differ in their roles; while the SMAs operate under the umbrella of the Health and Counseling Center, the PCs work primarily to link students to the center’s resources.

Having lost their practiced confidentiality, the group appealed to Decatur, who said the PCs convinced him that their conversations “can be inhibited, or have barriers” without confidentiality. 

Messenger worries that mandated-reporter status will limit the approachability of the PCs, if students feel that inadvertently referring to a sex crime while speaking to a PC may force the counselor to report it. 

“In some ways, it could be seen as taking away the power that that individual has of who knows about this very sensitive issue of sexual misconduct,” Messenger said. “We want people to be able to get the help that they need, and not have their experiences labeled as sexual misconduct.”

Franzino said PCs are an intermediary for those who are not mentally prepared to consult more specific resources, such as SMAs and Discrimination Advisors (DAs).

“When somebody chooses to go to a Sexual Misconduct Advisor, they are automatically, in some way, labelling whatever they’ve experienced as a form of sexual misconduct,” Franzino said. “That is a really difficult thing to do, and not something that everyone is ready to do. So, in talking to a Peer Counselor, it’s a little more accessible — it gives the person who needs resources a little more time and space.”

Dean of Students Hank Toutain said the College may rethink which groups receive confidential status.

Title IX/Civil Rights Coordinator Andrea Goldblum stressed that the PCs must be fully aware of the challenges of the process for securing confidentiality.

“Colleges must balance the legal requirements of Title IX/VAWA with the needs of the students and others on campus, while ensuring that those who respond to sexual violence are sufficiently trained to best serve those involved with sexual violence,” Goldblum wrote in an email to the Collegian.

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