Torrence Collier, 11, said he feels horrible about himself when he hears racist comments directed towards him at his school in Westport. CBC
Parents in the tiny Newfoundland community of Westport say suggestions that their community is racist are wrong, with one saying that Torrence Collier, the 11-year-old black boy whose allegations of racially motivated bullying have made national headlines, is a bully himself.
The student and his family allege he has been subjected to racist language — including the N-word and other slurs about his skin colour — since he arrived in the community about a year and a half ago with his adoptive parents, who are from the area but had been living in Alberta and Saskatchewan before returning to Westport.
The head of Newfoundland and Labrador's main school board confirmed Wednesday that several students at Torrence's school, St. Peter's Academy, have been suspended for their bullying and racist comments toward the boy.
On Thursday, Torrence's parents said they have notified school officials that they are removing him from the school for at least the rest of the school year, saying there is a "vicious" minority of people in the community who have bullied him.
"There are some wonderful people in Westport. They are family and friends, but then there are a few cruel ones," Torrence's mother, Heather Collier, said Thursday. "For the safety and health of my child, he will finish school at home."
'He's not the victim,' 1 parent alleges
But some other parents in Westport have told CBC News that they were shocked to hear the Collier family's story.
"I don't think there's any racists in Westport," said Carolyn Jacobs, who has been living in the town for almost three decades.
"I've never heard about racism here before. I don't know what to think, to tell you the truth."
Deborah Jacobs, no relation to Carolyn Jacobs, said she does not know whether Collier has been subjected to racist slurs, but said the Grade 5 boy has frequently bullied her twin daughters, who are in Grade 6, as well as other students,
"He's not the victim. He is instigating a lot of this to other children," she told CBC News, adding that she has had to severely restrict what her daughters can do so that they do not encounter Collier.
"My daughters have said to me that they're the ones that feel like prisoners, because I keep them away from him as much as possible."
Deborah Jacobs said she was appalled to see national headlines and social media posts casting Westport, a community of a few hundred people on Newfoundland's Baie Verte Peninsula, in such a negative light.
"It's been blown out of the world, practically," she said. "I've had all kinds of phone calls and messages about people going, 'What on Earth is going on in such a small community?' I don't think there's any person in this town who's racist."
Tamara Jacobs, 13, who also attends St. Peter's Academy, said the school is a far better place than the Collier family has described.
"Honestly, this community is a good community," she said. "There are people, they're loving, caring, they think the world of everyone, and I honestly don't think there's racism."
School board official to meet with family
The Colliers say the bullying and racist comments toward Torrence started shortly after the family moved back to Westport after living out west. Torrence is the only black child in the town
The family said it blames a core group of young teenagers at St. Peter's Academy, a small school with 35 students that serves all grades in the area.
Darrin Pike, the CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, said it's a complicated issue.
"When an issue this serious comes up, it's sometimes not an easy 'and do this and you'll solve it.' It's a multifaceted approach," he said.
Pike said the school has tried to resolve the issue by disciplining students and holding diversity training sessions at the school.
But he said there's more work to be done.
"We just don't want to end with the discipline. It's only the beginning. We really want to get the students to change their behaviour... and understand how their behaviour impacts others," he said.
"What we strongly support is work with the family within the school community. And let's work to fix that up and make that a happy spot for the student to go to."
Pike said an official with the school board plans to meet with Torrence and his family next week.
Meanwhile, Torrence's doctor has said that the boy will need to find another school in another town for his own well-being.
In a letter, the doctor wrote: "I would strongly advise that the only option for Torrence would be to change schools."
Carol Chafe, the provincial child and youth advocate, said any type of bullying is unacceptable.
"I was quite appalled that, in 2014, this kind of situation is occurring here in Newfoundland and Labrador," she said.
Chafe said Torrence's case is extreme.
"If you're aware that a child is enduring this, or your child is committing this type of thing to another child, then adults have to be accountable and they have to stand up and take responsibility, and they have to address it together," she said.
Prejudice 'still part of who we are'
Dorothy Vaandering, an assistant professor of education at Memorial University, said she wasn't surprised to hear about Torrence's situation.
"We live in a culture where prejudice is still a part of who we are," she said.
"In Newfoundland, we have a dominant Caucasian population. We are uncertain about how to work with difference."
Vaandering said if bullying has taken place, the students responsible for it need to be held accountable — but not through punishment.
"It means help them understand what exactly they are doing and how they can learn from the situation," she said.
"We need to look at this more broadly than a single incident."
Students show support
Susan Jackman, a kindergarten teacher at St. Andrew's Elementary in St. John's, said she can't imagine what school must be like for Torrence.
"For a child to have to go to school every day and just to feel so sad about the colour of their skin ... It just really hurt me," she said.
Jackman said her entire school got to work making cards of encouragement on Wednesday for the boy.
"I made it for Torrence because everybody's being mean to him in school," said a kindergarten student named Logan.
"It's really, really sad. He shouldn't be treated differently because his skin is a different colour," said Morgan, a Grade 5 student.
Jackman said the children were enthusiastic about the project.
"They kept saying how they loved him, even though they didn't know him," she said.
"They were very excited and wanted to make him feel better."
The St. John's students aren't Torrence's only supporters. Multiple Facebook groups have been set up, which as of Wednesday evening had thousands of likes.
Meanwhile, Heather Collier said the outpouring of support for her son has been amazing.
She told CBC Radio One's On The Go with Ted Blades that it might take days to get through all of the public response that they've received.
"Seeing him smile today and realizing that people do care — it's been awesome," she said.