Fish Rots from the Head Down

Published on September 3, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

Well, school has started just about everywhere, and I have spent the last few weeks in a mad-dash scramble of IEP meetings, Mediation and other events trying to finalize programs for several of my clients.  It’s always a stressful time for me, and even more so for parents of children with special needs.  And just like the end of the school year, the beginning of the school year tends to bring out the best, and worst, in people.  I’ve had a few powerful reminders of that this back-to-school season.

There is no way to over-state the difference a fair and reasonable administrator can make in a child’s special education program.


This goes for regular education administrators, like principals, and special education directors alike.  When you have someone who is caring, concerned, and open to criticism at the head of the team, while consensus may not always be reached, at least the parents will feel like their perspective is being heard.  And when that happens, they are more likely to participate in a truly meaningful way in the development of the IEP, in addition to being more willing to compromise on some issues in order to achieve others.  Almost nothing makes me happier than when a previously contentious relationship between parents and their school district transforms into a cooperative and productive one.

But when an administrator cares more about being in charge than they do about the children they are charged to educate, it is a recipe for disaster.

There is an old saying:  “fish rots from the head down.”  Now, I don’t actually know if fish does, in fact, rot from the head down, but I can tell you from a great deal of experience that special education programs do.  If you have a head of special education in your district who walks into IEPs asking “what MORE do you want from me?” as opposed to “what does this child need?” it will show in the attitudes of the teachers, the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and even paraprofessionals under her.


Perhaps the only thing worse than a special education administrator who doesn’t care is a regular education administrator who won’t follow the law.

Actually, I’m not sure which is worse, they both stink.  But very often I will see principals who make it clear to parents that they are less than thrilled that children with disabilities are placed in “their” school.  I have even heard regular educators reminded by special educators at IEP Team Meetings that they do, in fact, have to comply with the IDEA.  Like the principal who once said “I don’t care what the IEP says, I’m not putting another adult in that classroom!” even though my client’s IEP called for a 1:1 aide.  Of course, he was later forced to do it by the district’s lawyer, but what a miserable place for the parents to be in, where a necessary service for their child is forced upon the head of the building!

If you are ever put in a position of being able to choose between districts or schools, find out who is running the show.

Then, ask around and find out what kind of a reputation they have among parents of children with special education needs.  If that reputation is a poor one, while I wouldn’t dismiss an appropriate program entirely based on this one factor, I would count it twice in the “con” column.  Maybe even three times.

2 Responses to Fish Rots from the Head Down

  1. Rochelle Dolim
    September 4th, 2009 | 4:24 pm

    There’s nothing fair or reasonable about a special ed director whose first statement to a family is that she is going to “fight” the placement multiple professionals recommended, was committed to during an OCR investigation and which still took years to get in place. This she does behind the scenes while another district administrator goes on camera about how it’s the district’s legal obligation to provide continuity of service for special ed students.

  2. Mom of kid with special needs
    September 7th, 2009 | 1:40 am

    How so true this really is! We have been in a fight with our district for the past year. They definitely had the “what MORE do you want” attitude. I ran into a couple special ed aides at Target a few weeks ago and had an eye-opening, off-the-record discussion with them. They actually said they believed the “plan” for the district is to say no first, then see how much the parents push back. Based on conversations with other special ed parents, I would have to agree that this seems to be the method. They would not listen until we brought in a lawyer, and then suddenly everybody is being super nice. We started the year with several services not in place, and we politely referred back to the IEP, and within a day things were rolling. A much different response than we had 9 months ago! I wish it weren’t so, but your article hits the nail on the head!