Suspension for 'Hobbit' ring threat: How are schools handling discipline?

A young boy in Texas was suspended for threatening a classmate with an imaginary ring made popular in J.R.R. Tolkien books. As educators and legislators look to reform school discipline, are these cases a step backward?

Mark Pokorny/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP/FILE
in this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Martin Freeman appears in a scene from 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' featuring the 'One Ring.'

The news about a young boy in Texas being suspended for allegedly threatening to make a classmate invisible using the fictional "One Ring” from J.R.R. Tolkein’s books might offer a good place to start a discussion about discipline reform in elementary education.

According to reports, Aiden Steward, 9, told a classmate he would make him disappear using the magical ring featured in the “Hobbit" films. While we don't have any details reported on what actually took place in the classroom in this case, it doesn't take too much imagination to visualize kids arguing and some fairly creative threats being blurted out in anger or frustration.

According to the Facebook wall of Aiden’s father Jason Steward, Kermit Elementary School officials took the boy’s threat seriously and suspended him for making the threat against another student.

Mr. Steward has posted multiple news stories about his son’s suspension on his Facebook wall with the comment, “I'm getting fed up with this school in Kermit, TX!”

“We really like it here and there's a pretty strong sense of community. The only problem we have is with the education system (or lack thereof). I've been critical of the teaching methods here so I guess they're taking it out on him being overly critical of everything he does,” Steward posted.

Request for comment by officials at the school district were not returned by press time.

One of Steward's friends Draper S. Johnson posted on Steward's wall in response, “Well, at least he didn't pretend to have a sword, he'd have had the whole school locked down. Your son's school is ridiculous.”

In a phone interview from her home in Louisiana, Aiden’s Grandmother Tamara Steward said her grandson had just watched “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” a few days before the incident at school.

While she did not wish to comment on the specifics of the incident she said, “The whole thing’s crazy. It’s just hard to believe it even happened.”

For the record, my 11-year-old son who often helps me search for topics showed this one to me and said, “I’d much rather be threatened with fake invisibility than have someone put their arms around my neck and try and choke to death for real. Plus, invisibility could be cool and useful so I really don't see the problem."

Last month a boy – who says he had seen a potentially lethal chokehold in a video game – decided to use the move on my son during a playground argument. He was stopped by a teacher. To my knowledge, the boy was counseled and reprimanded, but no suspension resulted.

Therefore, disparity in elementary school disciplinary policies has become an ongoing interest to me.

Sadly, because I have been following a long string of stories about kids getting suspended for everything from biting a Pop Tart or cheese sandwich into the shape of a gun to hugging a classmate, this latest story holds a shock factor of zero.

The common thread in these quirky suspension stories appears to be that the majority of this kind of incident repeatedly occurs with children ages 10 and under.

It feels like kids using their imaginations is being is criminalized by some educators who are still on a disciplinary hair trigger that does little more than disgrace the school and in some cases result in parents retaining legal counsel.

What is also concerning to me is that the best efforts of the White House and Department of Education, including an early education summit in December, seem to have failed to help some elementary school educators learn the lesson that exclusionary disciplinary measures that remove a child from the learning environment for such oddball infraction are a no-no.

According to the Department of Education website, “At the White House Summit on Early Education, Secretaries Burwell and Duncan announced the release of a policy statement on expulsion and suspension practices in early learning settings.”

“Exclusionary discipline practices occur at high rates in early learning settings, and at even higher rates for young boys of color,” the site points out.

Some of the guidelines listed include: 

  • Create positive climates and focus on prevention;
  • Develop clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors;
  • Ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement.

One part of President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative, “encourages states, early childhood programs, and families to partner in preventing, reducing, and eventually eliminating the expulsion and suspension of young children from early learning programs.”

When I talked to US Department of Education Press Officer Jim Bradshaw by phone about this issue, he sent me a link to a school discipline guidance package designed to help states, districts, and schools “in developing practices and strategies to enhance school climate, and ensure those policies and practices comply with federal law.”

The package was the result of a collaboration between the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice and is something parents might want to consider sharing with their elementary school, district, and board of education for consideration.

"Unfortunately today, suspensions and expulsions are not primarily used as a last resort for serious infractions," said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the release of the guidance package given at the Academies at Frederick Douglass High School, Baltimore, MD. "A landmark study in Texas found nearly six in ten public school students — a majority of students – were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade.” 

If this latest case in Kermit is anything to judge by, at least where this Texas town is concerned, we can see this package appears to have had little impact. 

I think Attorney General Eric Holder was on the right track according to a comment included on the Department of Education website along with the guidelines in which he said, "A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.”

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