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The Experiences of School Counselors as Antibullying Specialists: A Phenomenological Study.

The pervasiveness of bullying in schools is well-documented in the literature (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014; Musu-Gillette, Zhang, Wang, Zhang, & Oudekerk, 2017; U.S. Department of Education [U.S. DOE], 2016) and is a phenomenon for which school counselors are charged to enact prevention services and interventions (American Counseling Association, 2014; American School Counselor Association [ASCA], 2012). According to U.S. DOE and Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2015, approximately 21% of students aged 12-18 reported being bullied at school (Musu-Gillette et al., 2017). Furthermore, students from marginalized populations reported higher incidence of being bullied. Such populations include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students (Human Rights Campaign, 2013); female students; and students of color (U.S. DOE, 2016). Comprehensive school counseling programs that deliver preventative and intervention services to students are reflective, at least in part, of strong institutional or organizational routines (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). These routines assist in the development, implementation, assessment, and modifications of such comprehensive school counseling programs for the benefit of students and the broader school community.

Theoretical Framework

Organizational theory, specifically organizational routines in schools (Stene, 1940), is a fitting theoretical lens through which to investigate how school norms can facilitate the delivery of comprehensive school counseling services. These routines can ultimately influence the optimal development of students. Organizational theory, in part, acknowledges the various ways organizations function and evolve over time. A range of factors influence organizational evolution, including but not limited to the contingent and situational nature of change (Galbraith, 1973; Scott, 1995) and the influences (e.g., internal or external forces) of those changes.

Organizational routines are a function of organizational theory. Feldman and Pentland (2003) defined organizational routines as "a repetitive, recognizable pattern of interdependent actions, involving multiple actors" (p. 96). Sherer and Spillane (2011) wrote that organizational routines are critical to the life of all organizations, including schools, but are often taken for granted. School counselors and other school leaders might surmise that the implementation and support of a comprehensive school counseling program, guided by the ASCA National Model (ASCA, 2012), acknowledges supportive and flexible organizational routines.

Influence of Bullying on School Organizational Routines

In efforts to understand the "true magnitude, scope, and impact of bullying" (Gladden et al., 2014, p. 1) and ways to address bullying incidents, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. DOE defined bullying as "any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated" (p. 8). These entities delineated the modes (direct and indirect, which included cyberbullying for the latter) and types of bullying (i.e., physical, verbal, relational, and damage to property; Gladden et al., 2014).

The need for school counselors to address bullying is paramount, given the myriad of physical, social/emotional, and academic consequences for students who are targets of bullying and those who bully. Researchers have identified bullying as a potential risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms (Guzzo, Pace, Lo Cascio, Craparo, & Schimmenti, 2014), self-harm and suicidal ideation (Hay & Meldrum, 2010), and dropping out of school (Cornell, Gregory, Huang, & Fan, 2013), to name a few. School counselors are well equipped to respond to bullying through their school counseling programs' framework (ASCA, 2012; Dollarhide & Sagniak, 2012; Holcomb-McCoy, 2005) and service delivery models that can align with sustainable and effective organizational routines.

All 50 states have enacted antibullying laws (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [U.S. DHHS], n.d.), with 45 states mandating that school districts implement bullying policies (Stuart-Cassel, Bell, & Springer, 2011). In fact, some states require school districts to designate school personnel to coordinate antibullying programs, which includes responding to bullying allegations with specific actions and interventions to support bullying victims and perpetrators (U.S. DHHS, n.d.). Personnel assigned to oversee such antibullying programs can include school counselors, and their capacity to fulfill this duty effectively can be largely dependent on their schools' organizational routines. This job responsibility for school counselors may, at times, contradict their professional roles (ASCA, 2012), particularly when they have to enact discipline for perpetrators as a result of investigating bullying allegations.

Purpose of the Study

Only four research studies to date have included school counselors' perceptions and responses to bullying in the schools, in addition to those of students and other school staff (Bradshaw, Sawyer, & O'Brennan, 2007; Carney, Hazler, & Higgins, 2002; Jacobsen & Bauman, 2007; Newgent et al., 2009). In a study of approximately 15,000 respondents, Bradshaw, Sawyer, and O'Brennan (2007) explored perceptual differences of bullying and peer victimization between K-12 students and school staff (including school counselors). Relevant to the current study, Bradshaw et al. found that staff members' own experiences with bullying were predictive of their attitudes toward bullying and perceived efficacy for handling bullying situations.

To date, we found no literature specifically addressing school professionals assigned to antibullying roles and their experiences performing these duties. Researchers have reported variation among school counselors in identifying and responding to bullying behaviors (e.g., Bradshaw et al., 2007; Jacobsen & Bauman, 2007). Therefore, further understanding the experiences and perspectives of those directly charged with systematically investigating, reporting, and coordinating responses (including disciplinary actions) of alleged bullying incidents has utility. The need for a closer examination is particularly important given the attention in the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors to dual relationships and managing boundaries (ASCA, 2016). The purpose of this qualitative study was to describe the experiences of school counselors assigned as antibullying specialists (ABSs), tasked with implementing a state-mandated antibullying program, through the lens of organizational routines. Specifically, we sought to understand how these school counselors, who were assigned the additional title of ABS, made meaning of their roles and responsibilities in the latter position. Using an interpretive phenomenological design, we intended to answer the research question: What are the experiences of school counselors assigned as ABSs?


Our research team determined that interpretive phenomenological design was most fitting given the overarching research question (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). In general, phenomenological studies are investigations about people's experiences with a phenomenon and how they derive meaning from those common events (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). Specifically, researchers use an interpretive phenomenological design when they want to gain a deeper understanding of an experience through interpretation of what has been shared (Smith et al., 2009; van Manen, 2011). Heidegger's interpretive phenomenology suggested the essence of human understanding as hermeneutic, or interpretive, due to the inherent understanding of our world through interpreting contexts and experiences (Dahlberg, Dahlberg, & Nystrom, 2008). Smith and Osborn (2015) suggested interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) as a means to examine complex, ambiguous, and/or emotionally laden topics. Given the scarcity of research on ABSs, this specific research design provided a means for a deeper understanding of the participants' experiences in a relatively new, and sometimes complex, role.

Recruitment and Data Collection Procedures

Upon institutional review board approval, we began recruiting ABSs with typical case (Patton, 2015) and snowball sampling (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000) methods in one state within the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. To identify typical cases of ABSs in public schools, we distributed flyers to a publicly available ABS membership database. We also used recruitment flyers and in-person requests to the targeted state's regional support network for educational professionals who were designated ABSs for their schools or school districts. Recruitment included an incentive of a gift certificate worth $40.00 United States dollars for participating in the study. The inclusion criteria required participants (a) to self-identify as their respective school's or district's ABS, (b) to be at least 18 years old, and (c) to speak and understand American English. Our recruitment efforts yielded a total of six ABSs who consented to participate, all of whom were also state-certified school counselors.

Data collection entailed a one-time, semistructured interview with each participant conducted face-to-face or via the web (e.g., Skype, Google Hangout). Interview questions were designed to learn the following information from all participants: (a) current ABS role; (b) personal pathways to the ABS role; (c) individual definitions of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB); (d) personal experiences with bullying throughout their life; and (e) individual self-care practices. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed by members of our research team.


Our recruitment efforts yielded six (N = 6) participants, all certified school counselors between the ages of 40 and 47 years. Five participants self-identified their ethnicity as White and one as White and Asian. The average years of service as an ABS and as a school counselor were 4 years (ABS) and 10 years (school counselor). All participants described the school settings where they served as suburban, with enrollment ranging from 290 to 1,360 students. Four participants worked in high schools and two in middle schools. All participants reported having a master's degree in counseling, with two also having master's degrees in educational leadership and one holding a certificate in substance abuse counseling. With 310 participants designated as an appropriate sample size range for IPA (Cilesiz, 2011; Dollarhide et al., 2018; Smith & Osborn, 2007), our sample of six participants was determined to be sufficient given the research design and goals for the study.

Researchers' Position

To minimize researcher bias (Glesne, 2011; Kline, 2008), our team members clarified our relationships with the research topic and our roles in the research process. Three authors are counselor educators (two with school counseling experience); one is a counseling doctoral candidate. One author is a school counselor and former middle school ABS.

Prior to data collection, we met several times to discuss our experiences with bullying (e.g., as bystanders, victims) and our assumptions about what participants might share in response to our interview questions. These meetings helped us bracket, or acknowledge, our assumptions and collective beliefs about this phenomenon in two ways (Wertz, 2005). First, we were sensitive to the challenges in the ABS role, which, we believed, was in many cases assigned to a school counselor. Being tasked with both roles can lead to additional responsibilities. Second, we acknowledged our responsibility as counselor educators to help prepare school counselors for these broader responsibilities in the school setting.

Data Analysis

According to Smith and Osborn (2007), IPA requires researchers to centralize meaning-making to understand both content and complexity of the meanings participants communicate. Researchers using IPA assume interpretation is inevitable and valuable in the research process given our daily interpretation of the world around us (Finlay, 2008; Heidegger, 1962; Lopez & Willis, 2004). Using an interpretive phenomenological research design, we sought to gain deep and contextual understandings of these school counselors' experiences as ABSs within their own sociocultural contexts and realities (McConnell-Henry, Chapman, & Francis, 2009). Our analysis required a two-stage interpretation process whereby (a) participants make sense of their world and (b) we, as researchers, try to make sense of the participants trying to make sense of their world (Matua & Van Der Wal, 2015; J. A. Smith & Osborn, 2007).

Data analysis began with our data analysis team (DAT), consisting of three members of our research team, individually reviewing the first participant's transcript and then documenting notes that conveyed basic understanding of the participant's experiences to identify preliminary themes (Osborn & Smith, 1998; Smith & Osborn, 2007). Next, members of the DAT individually clustered and connected preliminary themes based on what was communicated in the first transcript (Smith & Osborn, 2007). Third, the DAT met to discuss their interpretations and reach consensus on preliminary themes within the first transcript. As themes were identified, the DAT reverted to the original transcript to ensure that their interpretations could be confirmed by the participant's specific language (Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2014; Smith & Osborn, 2007).

The next round of analysis required the DAT to "orient the subsequent analysis" (Smith & Osborn, 2007, p. 73) of the remaining transcripts with respect to convergences and divergences in the data and to acknowledge how participants' experiences were potentially similar and different. This process was repeated after analyzing three transcripts and again upon analyzing all six transcripts. Finally, the DAT met to reach consensus on representative quotes to illustrate identified themes (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015). The first author served as an external auditor and engaged with the DAT in discussions about their findings after reviewing all transcripts.


Trustworthiness involves close monitoring during the research process to substantiate a study's findings (Hays & Singh, 2012) and to establish credibility, transferability, and confirmability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). We verified our findings in several ways, first through our bracketing exercises to assist us in minimizing any biases about the study topic (Wertz, 2005). This bracketing exercise--identifying, documenting, and thereby reducing our assumptions about the phenomenon studied--assisted in ensuring that the findings were confirmed by the data and not our own ideas. The second method was investigator triangulation, which involves multiple researchers in an investigation (Denzin, 1978). Frequent meetings among the DAT and the first author's role as an external auditor granted opportunities to cross-check for accuracy and increased the likelihood of confirmability (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) occurred during and after all interviews. We also sent each participant an executive summary of our findings for their review, feedback, and eventual confirmation. Last, using representative quotes from participants provided us with thick descriptions (Creswell, 2007), allowing readers to make their own decisions about the transferability of our findings.


Upon analysis, our collective interpretation resulted in identification of three overarching themes that described these school counselors' experiences as ABSs: (a) negotiating different bullying definitions, (b) the "dumping ground" position, and (c) inherent with role conflicts. We present these themes below in the participants' words to confirm our interpretation of the interview data. Pseudonyms have been assigned to participants to ensure confidentiality.

Negotiating Different Bullying Definitions

All participants acknowledged the inconsistent definition of bullying across school stakeholders, including the state definition and parents', students', and the participants' own bullying definitions. The participants' definitions were informed by their personal experiences and professional knowledge. Fiona said,
   I know the way [our state] defines [bullying], and obviously I have
   to abide by that, but I really see bullying as ... definitely an
   imbalance of power, which is not in the law but I think it should

Fiona also questioned the state law's language in distinguishing between HIB: "I think it is all one thing really, harassing someone, intimidating them, I feel like it all falls under the umbrella of bullying."

Catherine reported that bullying incidents involve a victim being targeted for a "distinguishing characteristic" and that she makes a distinction between general conflict between students and bullying, given the sensitive nature of the topic. She explained:
   We call it the big B and the little b. The big B is the law, and we
   use that definition for our [HIB] cases [that legally mandate state
   reporting]. But then there's also the little b, which is kind of
   the idea of bullying that we grew up with.... The big thing all of
   us really look at is, is someone being targeted based on perceived

Although the participants' personal and professional definitions of bullying might differ from the state's definition, Edward welcomed the state's guidelines to accurately guide his investigations of bullying allegations. For him, the state guidelines alleviated some of his own insecurities. He said, "The hardest thing ... is, [determining] is it going to be a HIB [incident] or is it a [general] conflict? I mean, kids [have] conflict; it's just part of school." Edward's district provides software to help determine whether an incident meets the legal criteria of a HIB incident. He explained, "When it goes to a distinguishing characteristic--sexuality is a big one now--soon as those words come up, that's automatically, in my eyes, it looks like it is going to be a confirmed HIB investigation."

Brenda shared how the state definition of bullying confuses students and parents when trying to distinguish bullying from normative peer conflict: "I think a lot of kids are confused with bullying versus a conflict, versus somebody sort of being a jerk or a mean girl." This confusion led Fiona to increase students' knowledge about this important topic within her school counseling antibullying curriculum. She shared: "I start with defining what bullying is, and what it looks like. And then we move into, if it is conflict, what do we do about conflict?" Anthony discussed something similar: "We look for the difference between conflict and bullying. At the elementary level, we call it, 'is it being bullied, or is it being bothered?'"

Additional legal dimension of ABSs' work. The participants discussed an explicit legal dimension that was related to the different bullying definitions among stakeholders. ABSs and their schools are subject to legal recourse if they are not steadfast in correctly identifying, reporting, and responding to bullying allegations (State of New Jersey, Department of Education, [NJ DOE], n.d.). Donna talked about the stress of mastering the technical aspects of state-mandated antibullying work: "Just how to write a legal report.... I never had training in that before.... I was told once I had to redact a report. I didn't even know what the word 'redact' meant!" Edward discussed the high-stakes nature of maintaining accurate legal documentation as an ABS and how it influences the ways he interacts with students and parents: "It's very important you have good paperwork. That paperwork is crucial. I go over and beyond, you know. I have a student sign what they tell me." Catherine shared how the legal dimensions of ABS work are stressful for her: "It makes me nervous, specifically because I don't want to feel like I did something wrong, or I missed something, and then I'm in trouble when I really did do what I'm supposed to do." Anthony shared a similar sentiment, noting how the stress affected him personally: "My first year doing HIB work was tough on my own marriage, to be quite honest."

The participants also discussed the value of being trained on the dimensions of state-mandated antibullying work by various state legal organizations. Fiona shared:
   We have gone to a lot of trainings about how to investigate and ask
   questions. A lot of trainings about the law in general, a lot of
   preventive-type trainings, what types of programs in this school
   would be helpful in preventing bullying and increasing your culture
   and climate.

Catherine described how training helped as an investigator in her role as an ABS and how it differed from her school counselor training:
   It was a 3-day training. They talked about interview skills and
   interview techniques.... They had a retired police officer ... go
   over how to tell if somebody's lying--in their body language....
   So this ... kind of helped, 'cause that's not how we were
   trained as counselors.

The "Dumping Ground" Position

The second theme that emerged from participants' descriptions of their ABS experiences was that their position as a school counselor was a "dumping ground" for assignments that no other personnel could or would perform. This has two significant points. First, in the state where the participants worked, ABS positions are distinct jobs in a school district, separate from other jobs (e.g., teacher, principal, school counselor; NJ DOE, n.d.). That is, an ABS position is in addition to the job for which an individual was hired, yet they are not directly compensated (nor relieved of other duties) for being assigned the ABS position (NJ DOE, n.d.). However, school districts do have the opportunity to apply for grants to provide HIB training and intervention services and to "help fund related personnel expenses" (NJ DOE, n.d., p. 4). Second, the participants reported that being assigned as an ABS was done with little to no consideration of their capacity to fulfill the job duties as a school counselor and usually with little to no input from the school counselors.

"I was 'voluntold'" said Donna, suggesting that she and her counselor colleagues were expected to take on additional tasks within the school even if the duties were over and above their school counseling job responsibilities. Edward expressed feeling coerced to be his school's ABS and his motivation was to earn tenure for job security: "My principal asked me if I would do it ... and I wasn't tenured and I was looking for job security, so I said sure." Catherine, a school counseling chairperson, described being arbitrarily assigned as an antibullying coordinator who had to supervise ABSs across her district. She reported that it was an imposition to her other school counseling duties: "My superintendent [sic] told me in the beginning of last summer ... that I would be overseeing the HIB specialists. Really no rhyme or reason. It's a lot of stuff added to everything else that I have to do."

Although not given choice in the matter, some participants embraced the role. In her particular case, Fiona took her position knowing that she would be both an elementary school counselor and ABS. "During my interviews and my orientation, they basically just told me that I was going to be an antibullying specialist, and basically all the counselors in the district would have that role." Andrew and Brenda were also more amenable to the ABS role. Brenda described it as a natural career progression but acknowledged that colleagues from other districts who were ABSs did not appreciate the assignment:
   I was bullying coordinator in [a] public school for several
   years.... This was actually prior to the legislation. I was the
   person that was most trained. But, I know that in the other people
   that I've talked to, some of the antibullying specialists resent
   being assigned this job.

Unlike other participants, Brenda expressed no reservation with how people might be assigned as ABSs without much input. "I appreciate that it's ... being put on people's plate ... 'cause I don't know how else, otherwise, that [bullying] stops." In Andrew's unique case, his district leaders welcomed feedback about the school counselors being assigned as ABSs. He described the connection between the ABS role and school counselors because of their counseling skill set: "[We] were informed that we would, by nature of our position and feeling that we were the best people to sensitively talk with students ... by default [it] came to us." He also discussed how his district supervisors were open to hearing from counselors dissatisfied with their ABS assignment: "I'm thankful my district asked us directly ... that if we for any reason were not comfortable taking the role, to feel free to communicate that."

Inherent With Role Conflicts

All of the participants discussed how they perceived that some of their ABS responsibilities were in direct conflict, and sometimes in competition, with their school counseling roles. They described these role conflicts as professionally challenging and personally taxing. Edward spoke directly about how the investigative function of ABSs directly reduced his time to provide counseling services to students. He shared:
   I came here to be a counselor.... Seventy percent of my week is
   dealing with [HIB] investigations. I miss working with the kids
   that are struggling with their depression, with the anxiety ... the
   low self-esteem.... There's a lot of times where I have to turn
   kids away, I can't meet with them because I am doing an

Catherine discussed her concern and discomfort about sending conflicting messages to students and families as the school counselor and the ABS:
   I feel like it's an awkward position to be in, for a counselor.
   Like, talking to students in a way where I'm sort of trying to
   figure out, like--or saying, like, "You might've done something
   wrong." ... It's sort of against what I've always been doing. So
   I'm having a hard time with that piece of it.

Consequently, Catherine discussed how intentional she was as a supervisor to protect newly hired counselors from being assigned as ABSs. "We have a [counselor], new ... and part of when he came on, I dug my feet in and said he will never be the HIB specialist, because it's a huge conflict of interest." Fiona echoed a similar sentiment about the roles conflicting, particularly because ABSs have to administer discipline for students found guilty of bullying:
   We do have good relationships with our students, and we are seen as
   someone helpful, and I get we have the skills to talk to students
   about these things. But at the same time, it is a conflict of
   interest, because, you know, I am the counselor, and I am not
   supposed to be seen as the disciplinarian and that's how the kids
   think of it.

Anthony and Andrew discussed their concerns about role conflicts and how they raised this issue with their supervisors. Anthony said, "There was a discussion of whether it [the ABS role] was going to conflict with an ongoing, healthy, and productive counseling relationship since we knew many of the students we would interview." Likewise, Andrew offered:
   My district was very clear and very firm in stating that when
   conflicts come up that we're ... permitted to immediately notify
   our administrator and ask that someone else ... be appointed to
   complete interviews in a particular case.

Despite support from his administration, Anthony acknowledged that the ABS assignment inevitably compromises his role as school counselor from his students' perspectives. He explained: "I've had conflict come up because if it's known that I have an ongoing relationship with a targeted student, I've known that students who are accused of targeting felt that they might not get fair treatment from me."

The participants, while acknowledging the aforementioned challenges with conflicting roles, all discussed how they reconciled those conflicts by underscoring the important work associated with being their school's ABS. Edward explained:
   I don't like being the ABS. There is a lot of dealing with parents
   that are mad at you, or taking your decision to the board, and
   having to deal with that stuff. But that's my number one job: to
   make sure kids feel safe coming to school every week.

Brenda also viewed her role as ABS in terms of student safety: "It could be anybody's child, any day, that either makes a poor decision and bullies, or is the victim." Catherine discussed the sometimes contradictory roles of ABSs and school counselors but recognized the ABS job's importance and the logic of having counselors take it on. She said,
   I'm not doling out discipline, but then [students] see me as the
   bad guy because I'm involved. And then, when they need help under
   the counseling umbrella, are they really gonna feel comfortable
   calling me? I'm gonna just embrace it, unfortunately.

Catherine's description also highlights that students' perception of the school counselor as disciplinarian ("the bad guy") might serve as a barrier for her, due to her role as the ABS, to develop and sustain rapport with students.

Andrew also expressed mixed feelings about the bullying law due to implications in his role as school counselor:
   I ... support it [the HIB law] 100% but ... I'm really
   uncomfortable with holding any sort of negative perception against
   an accused student, even in a confirmed case, because you've simply
   labeled the student. As a counselor, that completely defeats my

Fiona shared that she harbors deep reservations about her role as ABS: "I am interviewing and dealing with students that I see as a counselor, so I am not happy about it.... I get why they have the counselors do it, but it's not entirely appropriate." Still, Fiona is able to make the ABS work serve counseling ends:
   I really try to maintain the relationship. That is first and
   foremost for me.... My first goal is to make them comfortable and
   let them know why they are in there, whether or not they are the
   victim or the alleged bully.... They are children. Children make
   mistakes, they do the wrong thing, and you know, the whole
   "bullying" thing.... I just don't want them to feel like they're
   are going to be labeled for life.


The results of our study are relevant for school counselors given how diverse school counselor activities can be by state, district, and school. Two important points gleaned from the results merit further discussion. First is an acknowledgment of our participants' reported challenges with role conflict and frustration given their tasked roles as ABSs, in addition to their roles as school counselors. The second point is the ongoing need for professional advocacy in the school setting. Both points address the presented themes and offer considerations for school counseling practice informed by organizational routines.

School Counselor Role Ambiguity

Results of our study align with and complement prior research on school counselor role ambiguity. Our participants talked extensively about their assigned roles as ABSs directly conflicting with, and subsequently undermining, their roles as school counselors, per the dumping ground and inherent role conflict themes. Prior school counseling research has documented school counselor role frustration and ambiguity. Studies by Chandler et al. (2018) and Moyer (2011) illustrated how school counselors consistently report challenges associated with being assigned non-counseling-related tasks that contribute to burnout and undermine their ability to develop, implement, and assess comprehensive school counseling programs. Edward was very clear in his frustration about wanting to help meet students' mental health needs (i.e., anxiety, depression) but having to devote 70% of his time to bullying investigations. Catherine and Fiona felt that sending mixed messages to students--by being allies as school counselors while consistently feeling that, at any time, they will have to transition into being the ABS--was taxing and confusing.

At the same time, school counselors' perceptions vary as to what constitute non-counseling-related tasks. In a 1991 quantitative study exploring school counselors' involvement in the discipline process, only 19% of the 300 participants reported a conflict between their role as school counselors and as a disciplinarian, compared to 38% of participants who wanted an increased role in disciplinary matters (Stickel, Satchwell, & Meyer, 1991). Almost 30 years later, the evolution of the school counseling role continues with the introduction of a less punitive approach to disciplinary practices in the schools: restorative justice (L. C. Smith et al., 2018; Teasley, 2014). Teasley (2014) described restorative justice as "based on the development of a value set that includes building and strengthening relationships, showing respect, and taking responsibility" (p. 132). L. C. Smith et al. (2018) proposed a strong case for school counseling practices aligning with restorative justice practices, with school counselors playing a pivotal role in this approach. Hence, the role of the school counselor continues to transform in ways that might include a disciplinary component without compromising the student-counselor relationship (L. C. Smith et al., 2018). The dumping ground and inherent role conflict themes, in our estimation, directly reflect a range of organizational routines for which administrators can provide additional support to school counselors assigned the ABS role. Some participants reported experiences with their administrators that included organizational routines that were helpful in alleviating some of the challenges associated with being their school's ABS. For example, Andrew's comments about his supervisors asking school counselors for feedback and having the ability to be excused from an investigation suggest the kind of organizational routines that can alleviate conflicts of interest and affirm the legitimacy of school counselors' concerns.

Our participants' report of their jobs being a "dumping ground" for ABS responsibilities might be indicative of principals' and other supervisors' limited understanding of school counselor roles. Researchers have documented principals' lack of knowledge about school counselor training and responsibilities. DeSimone and Roberts (2016) found a knowledge gap among preservice principals about appropriate school counselor roles and the value of comprehensive school counseling programs. Prior research also illustrated the influence of strong counselor-principal relationships that might mitigate such knowledge gaps. Dollarhide, Smith, and Lemberger (2007) found that school counselors who intentionally facilitate systemic and ongoing interactions with principals can foster supportive relationships with administrators. These relationships support school counselors' confidence to suggest ideas and advocate for responsibilities that align with school counselor preparation (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009).

School Counselor Advocacy

ASCA (2012) and numerous researchers have charged school counselors to advocate on behalf of students, themselves, and the profession (Bemak & Chung, 2008; Brown & Trusty, 2005; Burnham & Jackson, 2000). However, advocacy comes with the professional risk of losing or renegotiating relationships as a result of disrupting systems. These risks and competencies have been documented in school counseling research.

Bemak and Chung (2008) introduced "nice counselor syndrome" to describe school counselors' reticence to engage in professional advocacy. In the current study, Edward described acquiescing to the ABS role because he was not tenured. Other participants in our study reported tension in assuming a role that at times fell outside their scope of training (e.g., drafting legal reports). They also reconciled whether and how to address concerns with supervisors who may not understand their skill sets as school counselors. Two participants, Brenda and Andrew, reported embracing the ABS role yet took the risk to address their concerns with supervisors to acknowledge potentially conflicting roles. Researchers have documented the competencies and skills school counselors should possess to advocate effectively. Brown and Trusty (2005) discussed a comprehensive set of skills for effective advocacy: communication, collaboration, and problem solving, to name a few. The choices school counselors make about whether they will or will not advocate for themselves could also stem from anxiety. That is, advocacy requires assuming risks, which can yield anxiety in those engaging in advocacy. Bemak and Chung (2008) addressed the risks and anxiety associated with overcoming Nice Counselor Syndrome. Some participants in the current study faced anxiety, particularly related to being compliant in the documentation and investigation of alleged bullying activities. With L. C. Smith et al.'s (2018) assertion of restorative justice praxis being "at the heart of school counseling identity and practice" (p. 4), it behooves school counselors to understand and advocate for a paradigm shift (hence, an organizational evolution) when approaching disciplinary actions. In fact, L. C. Smith et al. recommended the use of restorative-based practices for antibullying-related activities and policies, which include the distinctive role of the ABS.

Study Limitations and Recommendations for School Counseling Practice and Research

The goal of this qualitative study was to describe the experiences of school counselors assigned as ABSs in the context of organizational routines and norms that support or impede their capacity to successfully fulfill their ABS roles. Consequently, the transferability of these findings should be determined at an individual level. We do not assume that our participants speak for the larger population of school counselors who are assigned specific antibullying roles separate from their school counseling duties, given that our participants were sampled from one state. Further, the representation of school counselors across the K-12 system was limited for this study, including no participants from the elementary school level. Another limitation was our sample size. Although phenomenological research with small sample sizes has been validated by research methodologists (Cilesiz, 2011; Dollarhide et al., 2018; Smith & Osborn, 2007), studies with larger and more diverse samples can only aid in enhancing the knowledge base on this important and relevant topic. School counseling researchers and educators also can advance knowledge about antibullying interventions by conducting quantitative and mixed-method studies that explore school counselor efficacy with antibullying interventions, how frequently school counselors report being assigned non-counseling-related duties, and how personal experiences with bullying influence how school counselors administer antibullying programs.

Given our study's limitations, our profession may benefit from more research on school counselors assuming and/or being assigned to lead bullying prevention and intervention efforts. Documenting school counselors' assigned and preferred activities can help in the area of antibullying efforts (Scarborough, 2005). Carney (2008), Carney and Hazler (2015), and Jacobson and Bauman (2007) provided suggestions for counselors to develop, implement, and assess antibullying efforts in schools. The expressed themes from our participants offer descriptions about the lived experience of leading such charges. Finally, ongoing research about leveraging productive relationships between principals and school counselors and alternative ways to address problematic school-based behaviors (e.g., restorative justice) will aid in mitigating some of the role confusion school counselors reported.

DOI: 10.1177/2156759X19870799


The authors acknowledge and thank the participating school counselors who contributed to this study.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Montclair State University's Ada Beth Cutler Teaching Fellowship and Montclair State University's Separately Budgeted Research Program.


Michael D. Hannon [ID]


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Author Biographies

Michael D. Hannon, PhD, is an assistant professor with the Department of Counseling at Montclair State University. Email:

Angela I. Sheely-Moore, PhD, is an associate professor, also with the Department of Counseling at Montclair State University.

Thomas Conklin, PhD, is an assistant professor with the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Andrew J. Reitter is a school counselor at Wayne Hills High School.

Kathy A. Gainor, PhD, is an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Counseling at Montclair State University.

Michael D. Hannon [1] [ID], Angela I. Sheely-Moore [1], Thomas Conklin [2], Andrew J. Reitter [3], and Kathy A. Gainor [1]

[1] Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, USA

[2] Fairleigh Dickinson University, Bradley Beach, NJ, USA

[3] Wayne Hills High School, Wayne, NJ, USA

Corresponding Author:

Michael D. Hannon, PhD, College of Education and Human Services, Montclair State University, 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07043, USA.

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Title Annotation:Featured Research
Author:Hannon, Michael D.; Sheely-Moore, Angela I.; Conklin, Thomas; Reitter, Andrew J.; Gainor, Kathy A.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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