Helen Adams, co-author of Privacy in the 21st Century: Issues for Public, School, and Academic Libraries, Libraries Unlimited and Privacy Matters columnist for School Library Media Activities Monthly and Peg Burington, assistant library director and teen coordinator in the Waupaca Area Public Library, Waupaca Wisconsin have some advice for librarians faced with this difficult situation.
Minow: Helen, what do you advise school librarians when they are faced with a student who they think is deeply troubled and who they notice checking out or downloading information on something like bomb-making or how to commit suicide?
Adams: While we know that school librarians should extend the maximum amount of privacy to students, there are times when one is concerned by a student’s demeanor, sudden change in personality, dramatic switch in friends, a move toward isolation, or a fixation with information on risky or criminal activity. When this occurs, my first act would be to talk to the student casually but confidentially. If, after a period of time, I was still concerned, I would advise seeking out the school’s guidance counselor. The guidance counselor is already bound by confidentiality, so it is not the same as revealing the information to a teacher or the principal. The counselor may already know the child, may have obtained from other sources similar reports, and has training and experience on how to proceed in such a situation. The principal, on the other hand, may feel compelled to call the parents right away, fearing liability for the school. That is, if it’s found that s/he knew about this and didn’t take action, someone might sue. In the case of rumors of possible violence toward teachers or other students, the principal may feel a call to the police is required to protect the safely of all students.
It’s unlikely a school library would have a book on bomb-making; however, substitute any topic for “bomb-making” [war, weaponry, homosexuality, abortion, etc.]. Minors have the right to receive ideas and information from their school’s library as part of their First Amendment rights, and they should not be subjected to undue scrutiny while using library resources. School librarians should be extending maximum privacy to patrons who are minors. Only parents have the right to limit or restrict their own children’s choice of reading – whether in a public or school library setting.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that educators monitor students’ Internet use. Observing a student looking at a page on bomb-making or guns could elicit several possible reactions. One could consider that the student accidentally found that information, or it is research for a presentation for how easy it is to find weapons-type information on the Internet. One should not jump to the conclusion that a student is planning to use directions to actually build a bomb or use a weapon for criminal purposes. On the other hand, with the school shootings in this country in recent years, keeping one’s eyes open for information seeking and other “clues” is very important.
Minow: Let's take the hard situation. You feel in your gut that there are clues, and you decide to talk to the guidance counselor. Have you ever faced this situation? What might the guidance counselor do?
Adams: A guidance counselor may look at a student’s grades, record of absences, recent disciplinary actions involving the student, and casually talk to the teachers of the student to see if any changes have been noticed. At times, friends of the student who may be talking about suicide may confide in a teacher, and the information is reported to the counselor. With the collective background information, very importantly the counselor will likely create an opportunity to speak directly with the student.
As a former teacher and high school librarian, occasionally I would notice changes in behavior or personality of a student and just have a feeling that something is wrong. I would approach the student and begin a casual conversation to try to draw the student out a bit. If after a short time, I was still uneasy, I would call the guidance counselor for an appointment and lay out my concerns. Because of the degree of confidentiality involved in counseling, it was likely that I would never learn the reasons but always felt confident that someone with resources at hand was taking my concerns seriously.
Peg Burington, assistant library director and teen coordinator in the Waupaca Area Public Library, Waupaca Wisconsin agreed to answer similar questions from the perspective of a public librarian. The library serves a population of 17,000 within the city of Waupaca and four rural townships set in the heart of the Chain of Lakes in central Wisconsin. The Waupaca Area Public Library has an active Student Library Advisory Group (SLAG). The library’s website has photos and information about SLAG at http://www.waupacalibrary.org/yaserv/slag.htm/. More detailed information about the library’s youth program can be found in an article written by Peg, “The New Improved Best Cellar,” Voice of Youth Advocates, v. 29, no. 4 (October 2006), p. 316-317.
Minow: What actions might a youth services librarian take in a public library if they felt a student patron was in trouble? How would they figure out what school to approach? Is there a risk?
Burington: The state privacy laws protect all library records, and legally I could not disclose what books a teen has checked out. However, if I felt that the student was in danger, I would talk to him or her; and if I was not satisfied that he or she was not at risk, I would start by asking friends if the teen was ok. If I were still unsatisfied, I would contact the school guidance counselor. Our library is located in a very small community, and I know almost all of the teens who come to the library on a regular basis. Also being from a small community where there is only one high school or middle school is an advantage, because I know who to contact at the schools.
One of our goals is to develop relationships with kids. We believe in addressing the 40 assets, and our responsibility goes beyond making library materials available. The 40 developmental assets were developed by the Search Institute. After extensive research they identified "40 building blocks of healthy development that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible." (http://www.search-institute.org/assets/forty.html)
Libraries can help develop these assets by providing a nurturing environment with caring adults.
Minow: What if you feel that time is of the essence?
Burington: If I felt that the student was in immediate danger, I may try to detain the student from leaving the library. I believe that the safety of an individual would come before confidentiality. Depending on the situation, I would contact the student's parents or the authorities if I felt there was true risk.