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Managing School Social Work Records
Kendra J. Garrett
This article documents results of a survey of 73 school social workers regarding their
record-keeping practices. These social workers indicated that time pressures are a major
challenge to documentation; they struggle to know what to include, and they worry
about privacy. More than half fail to consistently include assessment information, progress
toward goals, and information on services provided. More than 75 percent do not provide
periodic and closing case summaries, pre- and post-test scores, and information on how
they have made decisions. Some 80 percent of respondents were in violation of Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act requirements to share records with parents or guardians
who request them, and only half were aware of their district’s policies on sharing information with third parties. There was widespread misunderstanding of the Health Insurance
Portability and Accountability Act, and half of the respondents were unaware of their state
laws regarding record keeping. These findings are concerning, as school social workers
who are not informed of legal mandates may be putting themselves and their districts at
some liability risk, and those who do not keep records with sufficient information to
reflect on their practice may be missing opportunities to improve their work with student
clients.
KEY WORDS:

documentation; ethics; recording; school social work; survey research

D

ocumentation is an important mandate
of social work practice, serving to create
a history of interactions with clients.
Records allow the worker to document informed
consent, note assessment information, identify
barriers, explain his or her decisions, state goals,
link needs and interventions, summarize important events, monitor improvement, identify outcomes, and reflect on process. But documentation
is not without its challenges as social workers
strive to create records that are thorough enough
to adequately document practice but succinct
enough to eliminate unnecessary personal information (Ames, 1999; Cuevas, 2006; Cumming
et al., 2007; Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Reamer,
2005). Thus, making decisions about what to
include in and exclude from a record can be difficult, involving simultaneous attention to practice
concerns, ethical duties, and legal mandates.
These challenges are, perhaps, even greater for
school social workers, who work with minor
clients within a complicated host agency governed
by a complex array of legal mandates. Busy school
social workers are further challenged by high case
loads and time constraints, so they must find ways
to document their student contacts efficiently
(Jonson-Reid, Kontak, & Mueller, 2001).

doi: 10.1093/cs/cds003

© 2012 National Association of Social Workers

Although there exist recommendations for what
should be included in social work records (see, for
example, Cuevas, 2006; Kagle & Kopels, 2008;
Reamer, 2005; Luepker, 2003), and Jonson-Reid
et al. (2001) recommended the use of check-off
information forms to simplify record keeping for
school social workers, little is known about school
social workers’ actual record-keeping practices.
Kagle (1991) studied social workers’ documentation practices in human services agencies (including schools) and found that increased time
pressures had resulted in reduced quality and
timeliness of records. More recently, Merlone
(2005) surveyed school counselors’ practices and
found little consensus regarding where to store
records, how much information to share with
other schools, and how long to retain records. Although little is currently known of what school
social workers are actually documenting, their
record-keeping practices seem particularly important given the importance of records in guiding
practice decisions, the vulnerability of their minor
clients, and the complexity of the mandates that
govern their practice.
The research reported here attempted to
further the knowledge base on the actual practices
of record keeping by school social workers. This

239

article describes the responses to a survey of
school social workers regarding what information
they choose to include in their records, the criteria they use to make such decisions, and their
knowledge of state and federal mandates regarding
record keeping. It is hoped that the findings from
this study will be used to identify ways to improve
or streamline workers’ recording practices, increase the utility of records for practice, and safeguard the ethical and legal aspects of recording.
PRACTICE ISSUES

A primary purpose of documentation is to aid
social workers in providing effective services to
clients. Kagle and Kopels (2008) viewed the recording process as an aid to critical thinking about
practice, because it encourages the worker to sift
through information, consider reasons for decisions, link assessments to interventions, and synthesize information, as the worker periodically
summarizes progress, rethinks goals, assesses outcomes, and writes a termination summary.
“Writing aids thinking … [It] allows the worker
to think back, think ahead, and think again”
(Kagle & Kopels, 2008, p. 83).
Gelman (1992) found that involving adolescent
clients in writing records clarified goals and expectations and improved relationships. Luepker
(2003) also viewed records as therapeutic tools to
be shared with clients in discussing progress
toward goals. She believed that sharing records
with clients helps them to know that they have
been understood and to view themselves as partners in making decisions about their treatment,
including goal setting, monitoring progress, and
planning for endings.
Advice on what to include in social work
records includes documentation of client contacts,
assessment information, rationales for services, goals,
intervention plans, outcomes, termination information, critical incidents (such as suicidal thoughts),
progress notes, information-release forms, and contacts with third parties (Ames, 1999; Cumming
et al. 2007; Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Raines, 2004).
Kagle and Kopels (2008) also recommended that
sources of information be documented and long
records be summarized regularly. When writing
records, workers are reminded to omit unsubstantiated hypotheses, intuitions, hunches, judgments,
inaccurate information, intimate details, clients’ personal views (unless clinically relevant), gossip, and

240

any information that could be used against a client
(Cuevas, 2006; Kagle, 2002; Kagle & Kopels, 2008;
Raines, 2004; Reamer, 2005). Determining what to
include in or exclude from a record, therefore, requires critical thinking and considerable professional
judgment (Kagle & Kopels, 2008).
School social workers keep records in a variety
of locations, including written files in private
offices, computer files, school databases, telephone
logs, and appointment books (Jonson-Reid et al.,
2001; Kagle & Kopels, 2008). Perhaps because of
the challenges of determining what to put into a
record, some social workers also elect to keep a
“private” set of records, kept away from the official agency record (Kagle & Kopels, 2008), for
purposes of keeping private client information
out of a case file, where it might be accessed
by other agency personnel. Raines (2004), writing
specifically about school social work records,
distinguished between personal notes, or solepossession records, a school social worker might
keep (under lock and key or on a personal computer) and official records—such as assessment
data, case histories, progress notes, independent
education plans, and progress reports—which
would be a part of the official school record.
The nature of the records social workers keep
depends on the purposes they are meant to serve
and on agency need. McDevitt (1994) suggested
that the primary purpose of child welfare case
records was to communicate information to a
child’s next caseworker, so they should contain
narrative summary, details on reported incidents,
and a closing statement. Kossman, Lamb, O’Brien,
Predmore, and Prescher (2005) described social
work chart notes in hospital records as including
general information regarding a patient, notes on
what was done and why, case closure notes, and
information on the amount of time spent with the
patient (for billing). Because school social workers
serve in many different roles in a variety of settings,
they may need to keep several kinds of records on
the students and families they serve. When contact
with a student is brief, as it might be in a consultation, Jonson-Reid et al. (2001) suggested that
school social workers might keep shorter records.
But long-term client services would require that
more detailed information be compiled, analyzed,
summarized periodically, and finalized with a
termination summary (Kagle & Kopels, 2008).
Workers can also cut their record-keeping burden

Children & Schools Volume 34, Number 4 October 2012

by developing cover sheets and progress forms
that allow workers to check off referral information and routine services (Jonson-Reid et al.,
2001; Kagle & Kopels, 2008).
ETHICAL ISSUES

Ethical decisions in school social work documentation are complicated by the fact that most students are minors and do not have full rights to
make their own decisions (Strom-Gottfried,
2008). Both confidentiality and privacy are fundamental social work values (NASW, 2008).
Minors, however, are considered developmentally
vulnerable and in need of protection by their
parents or guardians; their records are not given
the same privacy rights as are those for adults.
Nevertheless, there are times when students may
share information with a social worker that they
do not wish shared with their parents or guardians, and vice versa. If a secret is clinically relevant,
the worker faces a dilemma as to what should be
included in the record. In such a situation, the
school social worker may be caught between two
competing rights, those of the student and those
of the parents or guardians. These dilemmas
become more complicated as students age and
become increasingly able to make their own decisions (Strom-Gottfried, 2008).
School social workers may also be pulled into
complicated battles between divorcing parents
who both wish to gain the goodwill of the social
worker, perhaps at the expense of the other
parent. In such situations, the worker must remain
steadfastly neutral and keep records that carefully
document unbiased observations. Should any
conclusions be made, the reasons for these conclusions should be carefully recorded (StromGottfried, 2008).
School social workers may work with students
in groups rather than individually. Should records
be maintained for the entire group, such records
may pose a privacy risk. The NASW (2008) Code
of Ethics is clear that privacy of group members
must be maintained when providing others with
access to group records. For this reason, Luepker
(2003) recommended that records of group
members be kept individually rather than in a
group file.
The Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) indicates that
clients should have access to their records except
when such access could lead to serious harm, and

Garrett / Managing School Social Work Records

Raines (2004) recommended that this right extend
to students as well. He asserted that students have a
right to know what their records contain, the limits
to their privacy, and that parents or guardians may
have access to social work records about them.
In schools, record confidentiality and privacy
may be challenged by electronic storage of records
(Cuevas, 2006) as computers linked to the Internet
or a school network are not completely secure
(Cuevas, 2006; Kagle & Kopels, 2008). JonsonReid et al. (2001) recommended that even documentation stored on a private (non-networked)
computer be protected with two passwords, one to
get onto the computer and another to get into
records.
Records also document that the worker has
followed professional standards and serve to minimize liability risk (Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Reamer,
2005). Thus, workers should note the reasoning
behind their decisions and actions (Kagle & Kopels,
2008). Reamer (2005) recommended, when confronted with an ethical dilemma, that the worker
document the decision-making process, including
supervision and consultation with other professionals. When such ethical dilemmas center on the
records themselves, Strom-Gottfried (2008) suggested that ethical documentation of the decisionmaking process should be placed in personal notes
rather than in the official record. Reamer (2005)
noted that social workers have a responsibility to
create clear, unambiguous records; avoid jargon;
include supporting reasons for conclusions; use
careful, nonjudgmental language; and assume that
clients will read their records. Ethical records are
clear, logical, factual, well organized, and well
written (Kagle & Kopels, 2008).
LEGAL MANDATES

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

School records have been legally defined under the
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of
1974 (P.L. 93-380) (FERPA) as “(1) Directly
related to a student and (2) Maintained by an educational agency or institution, or party acting for
the agency or institution.” Thus, records kept by
the school social worker, including progress notes
of individual sessions, even if privately maintained
in a social worker’s office, are considered a part of
the education record and are subject to FERPA
(American Counseling Association [ACA], 1999;
Fischer & Sorenson, 1996; Kagle & Kopels, 2008;

241

Overcamp-Martini, 2006). Furthermore, health
and mental health records from a school-operated
health clinic that receives federal funding from
any source administered by the U.S. Department
of Education are also considered education
records under FERPA (U.S. Department of Education, 2008).
Under the mandates of FERPA, records must
be disclosed to parents and guardians (including
noncustodial parents) who so request; this right is
transferred to the student when he or she
becomes an adult (ACA, 1999; Fischer & Sorenson, 1996; Kagle & Koples, 2008). FERPA provides strict restrictions on releasing information
without parent or guardian consent, but it allows
communication of educational records “without
consent to teachers and other school officials with
legitimate educational interests [and] to a school
where a student is transferring” (Kagle & Kopels,
2008, p. 232). Schools must determine policies regarding what information could be routinely
shared with other schools (Fischer & Sorenson,
1996).
FERPA excludes “records that are kept in the
sole possession of the maker, are used only as a
personal memory aid, and are not accessible or revealed to any other person except a temporary
substitute for the maker of the record” (P.L.
93-380). But these personal files must remain
private; should they be disclosed to anyone other
than a substitute, they become part of the educational record (and subject to parent/guardian
review) (Fischer & Sorenson, 1996; National Forum
on Education Statistics, 2004). These personal
memory-aid notes are not to be confused with case
notes or other records complied by school personnel (National Forum on Education Statistics, 2004).
Health Insurance Portability
and Accountability Act

When school social workers bill Medicaid or
private insurance electronically for their services
to students, schools must comply with the recording mandates of the Health Insurance Portability
and Accountability Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-191)
(HIPAA). “The HIPAA Privacy Rule specifically
excludes from its coverage those records that are
protected by FERPA” (U.S. Department of Education, 2008, p. 11). So, although HIPAA recognizes that psychotherapy notes are different from
personal health information and may be kept

242

separate from other health information (Kagle &
Kopels, 2008; Overcamp-Martini, 2006), progress
notes kept by a school social worker, even one
who bills electronically, would be considered education records and are, therefore, subject to the
disclosure restrictions of FERPA.
Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment

Under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), parents or guardians must provide
consent for (and have a right to preview) any
surveys or other school-based research that collects
private information about their child (Hecht,
2005; U.S. Department of Education, Family
Policy Compliance Office, n.d.). Information on
students’ or their family members’ mental illnesses
or psychological problems are specifically identified as protected information (U.S. Department
of Education, 2004). Thus, if school social
workers’ assessments were to include group
surveys or evaluations, parents and guardians
would have the right to review any surveys to be
used and opt their sons or daughters out of that
research (Hecht, 2005).
State Statutes

Mandates for social work records vary by state
(Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Reamer, 1994, 2005). In
Minnesota, for example, state law mandates the
contents of social work records and sets a sevenyear minimum storage time after a case has been
closed (§148D.225 Subd.4). Arizona also mandates the content of records but sets a six-year
storage time (A.R.S. 12-12A.R.S. §12-1297). In
all states, social work records, including case
notes, are subject to court subpoena in certain circumstances (McDevitt, 1994; Reamer, 1994). But
laws differ on whether “private” personal notes
kept in a separate file can also be subpoenaed
(Reamer, 2005). School social workers, then,
must become familiar with the statutes related to
record keeping in the states in which they
practice.
METHOD

A sample of school social workers was surveyed to
identify what information school social workers
choose to include in their records, the criteria
they use to make decisions about what to include,
and their knowledge of state and federal mandates
regarding record keeping.

Children & Schools Volume 34, Number 4 October 2012

Survey

The findings reported here were taken from a
larger survey regarding school social workers’ documentation practices conducted in February of
2009. Reliability and validity of the questions are
unknown as they were developed for this survey.
The questions were, however, previewed by a
group of school social workers who reported that
the survey appeared to have face validity and that
the questions were clear and unambiguous. The
survey was made up primarily of quantitative
questions administered through Survey Monkey
(see http://www.surveymonkey.com/).
Quantitative Questions. For this report, 25
short-answer (multiple choice and check-off )
questions were analyzed; they asked about the
types of records kept, what was included,
decision-making practices, use of the records,
challenges, storage, disposal of closed records,
access to records, and district policies. One question, for example, asked respondents to indicate
how important various criteria (amount of time,
documenting service provided, and so on) were
to them in deciding what to include in (or
exclude from) records. They were given a choice
of “very important,” “important,” or “not important.” An example of a check-off question is one
that provided respondents with a list of locations
( physical files in office, laptop, and so on) where
they store open case records. Data were downloaded into MINITAB 15 for analysis.
Qualitative Questions. For this report, one
qualitative question was analyzed; respondents
were asked, “What do you find most challenging
in keeping records on the students you see?” Responses were transferred into word-processing
documents and analyzed through a content analysis process in which themes were coded, counted,
and summarized.

exempt level by the institutional review board of
the University of St. Thomas.
For the 245 potential participants, 23 e-mails
were undeliverable, and nine responded that they
were not practicing as school social workers.
Eighty respondents completed the survey, but
seven of these were not used because the participants indicated they were not practicing school
social workers. This left a total of 73 usable responses, a response rate of 30 percent of the potential sample.
Respondents came from 24 U.S. states and
Canada. They reported that they represented
school districts that employed between one and
400 social workers (M = 28.47, SD = 60.20).
They had been practicing as school social workers
from one to 26 years (M = 11.69, SD = 7.72).
This sample was likely representative of practicing
members of SSWAA, but, because of the small
size, results should be generalized with caution.
RESULTS

All but three of the respondents (95.83 percent)
indicated that they keep records in some form regarding the students with whom they work. They
reported spending an average of 4.85 (SD = 4.02)
hours each week documenting their work. These
school social workers reported (in response to the
qualitative question) that they lack adequate
time for documentation. Without prompting,
64 percent of the 50 school social workers
who responded to this question identified time
constraints as their greatest record-keeping challenge. They stated, for example, “[My greatest
challenge is] documenting accurately and as fast as
possible”; “[My greatest challenge is] consistently
entering notes in a timely fashion”; and, simply,
“[My greatest challenge is] time.”
What Is Included in Records

Sample

The sample for the survey was drawn from a list of
members of the School Social Workers’ Association
of America (SSWAA). The membership list was
divided into two lists (even and odd numbers); a
coin toss randomly determined which group to
survey. Those selected were invited to participate in
an e-mail that explained the purpose of the survey,
promised anonymity of respondents, explained risks
and benefits (none were identified), and provided a
link to the survey. The research was approved at the

Garrett / Managing School Social Work Records

School social workers surveyed indicated that they
keep records of open cases in a number of formats
(see Table 1). The kinds of information respondents included in their records is indicated in
Table 2.
Decision Making Regarding What
to Include in Records

Criteria that respondents considered “very important” in determining what information to include
in a record are displayed in Table 3.

243

Fifty respondents answered the open-ended
question about their greatest record-keeping challenges. In addition to identifying time concerns as
a challenge (see Table 3), 12 (24 percent) voluntarily identified determining what to include in
records and degree of detail as challenges. For
example, one said, “I don’t know exactly what I
should be keeping and not keeping.” Another
said, “[The challenge was] knowing what to
document and how much to document.” One
spoke to the problem of having multiple records
on a student in the school: “[My greatest challenge is] determining what should be kept in the
student’s cumulative file and what needs to be
kept by me in my personal files.” Another articulated the difficulty of finding the right balance:
“[My greatest challenge is] detail, making sure everything is in the record that should be, but not
too much.”
Table 1: Where Social Workers Kept
Student Records (N = 73)
Open
Cases

Closed
Cases

Location

%

n

%

n

Paper files in worker’s office
Desktop computer in worker’s office
Portable laptop computer
Special education file
Log/diary
Schoolwide database
File area in social work office
Home

74
30
25
22
21
12
1
4

54
22
18
16
15
9
1
3

58
16
14
23
8
14
7
7

42
12
10
17
6
10
5
5

In response to this same qualitative question,
another seven respondents (14 percent of those
who answered the question) indicated that they
had concerns about the privacy and confidentiality of their records. Some examples of their comments are issues regarding “guarding who will
have access to the data,” “not having adequate/
secure space to keep the information,” and “trying
to minimize the amount of information written
[about] the student to maintain as much confidentiality as possible.”
State and Federal Statutes

When asked, 11 percent of the school social
workers surveyed indicated that they would not
share their records with parents or guardians on
request, whereas 52 percent said they would not
share information with noncustodial parents who
asked (see Table 4). One-fifth of the respondents
did not answer these questions.
When asked if they keep “school only (not for
parents to see)” files on students, 10 percent
(n = 7) indicated that they always keep such files,
and 14 percent (n = 10) sometimes do so.
Nearly half (49 percent, n = 36) said their districts had policies regarding release of information
to third parties, whereas 27 percent (n = 20) indicated that their districts had no such policies.
Another 23 percent did not respond to the question. When asked about district policies related to
transfer of school social work records to a new
school that requested them, 45 percent (n = 33)
said that their district would not transfer a school

Table 2: Information Included in Records
On Every
Student

On Some
Students

Never Keep

Information in Records

%

n

%

n

%

n

Dates of contact
Types of contacts
Information regarding contacts with parents/guardians
Information on contacts with third parties
Assessment information
Student progress toward goals and objectives
Information on types of services provided
Anecdotal information (such as observations)
Closing case summaries
Material from work with students (for example, artwork)
Pretest and posttest on goals
Periodic case summaries
Information on how decisions were made

62
59
58
56
45
45
44
21
19
14
12
12
10

45
43
42
41
33
33
32
15
14
10
9
9
7

16
21
23
25
29
29
34
56
30
49
30
42
38

12
15
17
18
21
21
25
41
22
36
22
31
28

0
1
0
0
7
7
3
4
30
16
37
26
32

0
1
0
0
5
5
2
3
22
12
27
19
23

244

Children & Schools Volume 34, Number 4 October 2012

social worker’s records to a student’s new school,
and 40 percent (n = 29) would not send social
work records to a new school even if a parent or
guardian requested that they do so.
Of respondents, 53 percent (n = 39) indicated
that they did not discuss record keeping with
parents, and 68 percent (n = 50) indicated that
parents were unaware of district policies regarding
social work records. Only 8 percent (n = 6) told
parents or guardians that they may view records
on their sons and daughters; 7 percent (n = 5) told

Table 3: Decision-making Criteria about
What to Include in Records
Respondents
Who Identified
Criterion as
“Very Important”
Criterion

Helping me remember what I have
done
Documenting services provided
Demonstrating ethical practice
Concerns about privacy of record
storage
Consideration of who might have
access to the record
Reflection on work with a client
Concern that records might be
subpoenaed by a court
State or federal laws
Monitoring results of practice
Communicating information to
future service providers
Minimizing the amount of
information in the record
Program evaluation
Amount of time available for
recording
Demonstrating thinking behind
practice decisions
Meeting district standards for record
keeping
Discussing work in supervision

%

n

64
60
52

47
44
38

51

37

51
41

37
30

40
38
37

29
28
27

36

26

33
27

24
20

27

20

26

19

25
19

18
14

students that their parents can see their records if
they request to do so.
In an effort to learn about understanding of
HIPAA mandates, respondents were asked in two
separate questions if their districts were billing
electronically and if they were subject to HIPAA.
Of the 12 who indicated that they used paper
billing, all believed that they are bound by
HIPAA mandates. Of the 24 who did not bill
medical assistance, six thought they were bound
by HIPAA, and 18 said that they were not. Of
the 20 who used electronic billing, 16 said that
they were bound by HIPAA; four thought they
were not subject to HIPAA laws (see Table 5).
Many school social workers were unaware of
state laws regarding social work record keeping.
Half (49 percent, n = 36) responded that they did
not know if their state had laws that defined what
should be in a social work record; 41 percent
(n = 30) indicated that they did not know if their
state mandated how long records should be kept.
Like records of open cases, closed records are
often kept in more than one place (see Table 1).
When asked how long they retained records on
students they were no longer seeing, 18 percent
(n = 13) indicated that they destroyed them
within six months, 3 percent (n = 2) said they
kept them between six months and five years;
30 percent (n = 22) kept them six to 10 years; and
15 percent (n = 11) kept them 10 to 15 years.
Three percent (n = 2) indicated that they did not
destroy records of closed cases. Many (42 percent,
n = 31) made their own decisions about how long
to keep records, whereas the special education
or social work department had policies for 10
(14 percent), and the same number received guidance from school lawyers. Twelve (16 percent)
indicated they followed state laws about keeping
closed records. Districts took care of record destruction for 20 respondents (27 percent). The rest (42
percent, n = 31) indicated they were responsible for

Table 4: Answers to the Question “Would You Share Your Records on a Student if Asked
by _____?”
Yes

Depends on
the Situation

No

No Response

Asker

%

n

%

n

%

n

%

n

Parent or guardian
Noncustodial parent

18
0

13
0

11
52

8
38

49
35

36
19

22
22

16
16

Garrett / Managing School Social Work Records

245

Table 5: School Social Workers’ Beliefs
about Accountability under HIPAA Laws

Condition

Believed They Did Not Believe
Were Bound by
They Were
HIPAA
Bound by HIPAA

Did not bill insurance
or MA (not bound
by HIPAA)
Paper billing (not
bound by HIPAA)
Electronic billing
(bound by HIPAA)

6

18a

12

0a

16a

4

Note: MA = medical assistance. HIPAA = Health Insurance Portability and Accountability
Act.
a
Correct response.

their own records, although eight (11 percent) indicated they had not practiced long enough as
school social workers to have faced the issue of
record destruction.
DISCUSSION

This research attempted to identify what information school social workers include in their records,
the criteria they use to make decisions about what
to include, and their knowledge of state and federal
mandates regarding record keeping.
Time Constraints

Respondents echoed Jonson-Reid et al.’s (2001)
assertion that busy school social workers have
limited time for documentation. In fact, when
offered a chance to identify their challenges, half
of those who responded to the question indicated
that finding time to keep records is a major
challenge.
Information Included in Records

Respondents confirmed Kagle and Kopel’s (2008)
and Jonson-Reid et al.’s (2001) observations that
social workers store records in a variety of formats
and locations. This may create some complications. When workers need to locate information,
they may need to check several locations. Should
a worker need to forward information to a third
party, he or she would need to locate information
from multiple files.
Although many of the school social workers
surveyed routinely included information recommended by Cuevas (2006), Kagle (2002), Kagle
and Kopels (2008), McDevitt (1994), and Reamer
(2005) in their records, there were large numbers

246

who did not include some recommended information. One-third commonly did not include
dates of contacts with students and parents or
guardians, information release forms, correspondence regarding students, consents to provide services, and third-party contacts in their records.
More than half failed to consistently include
assessment information, progress toward goals, and
information on services provided. And more
than three-fourths did not provide periodic or
closing case summaries, pre- and post-test scores,
or information on how they have made decisions.
A substantial number indicated that they maintained the sort of information discussed in this
paragraph on some but not all students. This is
consistent with the observations of Kossman et al.
(2005), McDevitt (1994), and Jonson-Reid et al.
(2001), who indicated that social work records
tend to be flexible, fitting the needs of the situation and the length of client contact. And, perhaps,
the time pressures school social workers identified
as one of their greatest challenges prevent consistent, thorough documentation. However, failure
to include such information may leave these
workers and their districts in some risk should they
need this information for their own use or because
of a legal challenge. What is more, they do not
have this information available as they make practice decisions and plan interventions, and they are
apparently unable to identify outcomes of their
practice. Those who do not keep information on
goal attainment and case summaries may be
missing an opportunity to think critically about
their practice, which Kagle and Kopels (2008)
viewed as an important purpose of keeping
records. And, when social workers do not document their thinking and decision making, they
may not be able to articulate their reasoning at a
later date (Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Reamer, 2005)
should they be called on to do so.
Criteria for Including Information
in Records

Regarding determining what to include in their
documentation, respondents rated practice and
ethical concerns as highest priorities and emphasized ethical record keeping as highly important.
They reiterated their concerns about determining
what to document, particularly given their
concerns about data privacy. This was reinforced
by comments made in response to the open-

Children & Schools Volume 34, Number 4 October 2012

ended question in which respondents identified
questions about what to include in records and
privacy and confidentiality issues as among their
greatest record-keeping challenges.
Legal Issues

Although many of the respondents were familiar
with state and federal laws regarding record
keeping, there were also some who apparently
were not aware of these mandates. FERPA mandates that school records, including all social work
records, be made available to parents, noncustodial parents, or guardians if they should request
(ACA, 1999; Kagle & Kopels, 2008; OvercampMartini, 2006). Yet less than 20 percent of respondents indicated that they would share information with parents or guardians without
qualifications, and none would share information
if asked to do so by a noncustodial parent. That
nearly a quarter of the respondents chose not to
answer this set of questions may indicate uncertainty as to what information should be shared
with parents and guardians.
FERPA also requires that districts have policies
in place regarding transfer of records to other
schools (Fischer & Sorenson, 1996; Kagle &
Kopels, 2008). Yet a number of respondents indicated that their district had no such policies.
Perhaps these school social workers were not
aware of district policies on record transfer to
third parties, if they indeed exist.
HIPAA applies only to those agencies that bill
for services electronically (Kagle & Kopels, 2008;
Overcamp-Martini, 2006). Yet most of those
respondents who either did not bill or did not bill
electronically thought they should be in compliance with HIPAA. Of those who should have
been in compliance with HIPAA (those who
billed electronically), one-fifth did not think
HIPAA applied to their districts. Although these
numbers are small and may not be representative,
they appear to indicate some misunderstanding of
HIPAA requirements.
Laws vary from state to state regarding social
work records, so school social workers must know
their state laws (Kagle & Kopels, 2008; Reamer,
2005). But half of those surveyed indicated that
they did not know if their states had laws regarding what should be in social work records, and 40
percent did not know if there were state mandates
for maintaining records for a set length of time.

Garrett / Managing School Social Work Records

A number of the school social workers who
responded to this survey indicated that they were
not following the practices recommended in the
literature for ethical documentation. Still others
were apparently not following state and federal
laws regarding the keeping, transfer, and disposition of records.
CONCLUSION

Record keeping is an integral part of school social
work practice and serves to help workers reflect
on their work with student clients. The results of
this survey indicate that a number of workers are
not keeping complete information and, thus, possibly are missing opportunities to improve their
practice. Others are not documenting their reasoning and decision making, and respondents also
indicated misperceptions of the laws pertaining to
their record keeping. Furthermore, many of the
respondents’ districts either lacked policies mandated by FERPA regarding transfer of records to
third parties or the respondents had not been informed of them. These lapses and misunderstandings could lead to legal liability for both workers
and their districts.
It appears that school social workers need more
guidance in their record keeping practices. For
example, schools of social work should put more
emphasis on teaching record-keeping practices so
that future school social workers will be well
versed in the nuances and mandates of documentation. Social workers already practicing in schools
must become better informed about relevant
state and federal laws on record keeping. Perhaps
professional organizations could help with this
effort by offering workshops on the practice benefits, the ethical importance, and the legal mandates of recording. It is essential that school social
workers’ records demonstrate that they are ethical,
effective practitioners who follow federal mandates and the laws of their states.
REFERENCES
American Counseling Association. (1999). Professional counselors’ guide to federal law on student records. Alexandria,
VA: Author.
Ames, N. (1999). Social work recording: A new look at an
old issue. Journal of Social Work Education, 35,
227–238.
Cuevas, M. C. (2006). Guidelines for confidentiality: Writing
progress notes and storing confidential information. In
C. Franklin, B. B. Harris, & P. Allen-Meares (Eds.),
The school services sourcebook: A guide for school-based

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