Torrence Collier bounces a basketball and takes a few shots at the hoop in his front driveway before venturing into the garage and raiding his father’s toolbox.
For the boy who just turned 11 years old, shooting hoops by himself on a sunny day in June isn’t the life he expected when his parents told him they were moving to the small community of Westport on the Baie Verte Peninsula two years ago.
“We told him he was going to have freedom, and that he could be out playing with his friends and not have to worry about going up the road or being out after dark,” says Torrence’s father, Walter Collier. “Now he can’t do that because we’re afraid of what they’re going to do to him if he goes anywhere alone.”
The Colliers have been the subjects of a national focus in recent days after they went public with their son’s story of being severely bullied at school and in the community they now call home.
Torrence Collier is black — something his parents feel has been a key element in how the other children and teenagers of the community treat him.
His mother, Heather Collier, said she’s been fighting on behalf of her son for more than a year with school administration at St. Peter’s Academy and the school board, over the treatment he’s received since moving into the school in 2012.
“One day, two older kids — older than Torrence, probably in the middle teens — grabbed him and stuck his head down in a toilet,” she said. “We had to carry him to the doctor because he got sick, and had an infection, and was on antibiotics for several days.”
That’s just one of the visceral attacks Collier said her son has undergone.
“He’s come home with bruises and cuts from where people have punched and kicked him,” she said. “One day he came home with a big bruise on his arm, and when I asked him what happened he said someone lifted his sleeve and punched him in the shoulder.”
No help from officials
The Colliers approached the administration at St. Peter’s Academy last year and expressed their concerns. Heather said she was assured that the matter would be brought up with the school board, but she went months without receiving any word from them.
“They kept telling me the school board was going to call us and set up a meeting,” she said. “But they never did.”
Meanwhile, the bullying kept going to the point where his mother says Torrence came home crying on several occasions because of how he’d been treated that day.
“I started writing it down,” she said. She read out a list of names her son claims he’s been called, including racial and homophobic slurs that she said has had the most hurtful effect on her child.
“He started coming home and asking why everyone hated him and saying he would rather die than go back to school,” she said. The Colliers found a letter, written by Torrence in March, that stated he didn’t want to live anymore.
Taking it in her own hands
Heather said after finding that letter, she started desperately seeking help wherever she could find it. Finally, she decided to email Darrin Pike, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School Board.
“He had written a blog post on bullying, and after reading that I knew I had to tell him Torrence’s story,” she said.
After the email went to Pike, Heather said a response came back quickly and suddenly wheels were in motion.
However, she said the talks with the school board still didn’t stop the bullying, and an incident two weeks ago brought the Colliers to a breaking point.
The RCMP in Baie Verte confirms it has an open case file involving a complaint from the Colliers involving an incident of bullying.
“The case file was opened after a complaint came about an incident of bullying,” said Cpl. Justin Hewlett. “The incident is involving minors and while the investigation is ongoing, no charges have been laid at this point.”
Worldwide support, community backlash
After going public with their story, the Colliers said they received feedback from both ends of the spectrum. A Facebook page was quickly set up and has accumulated omore 10,000 “likes” from people all over the world.
The family said they received more than 20,000 messages of support through social media, emails, letters, and phone calls.
“It’s been phenomenal. I mean we’ve gotten messages from all over the world, and people have sent cards and letters telling him to hang in there, and stay strong. It’s just wonderful.”
However, not all the feedback has been positive, and the Colliers said much of the pushback they’ve received has been from their own community.
Many residents took to social and traditional media to defend their town and the accusations against them.
Westport Mayor Max Warren says since the family went public with their story, his community has been painted in a negative light.
“It’s awful. Just awful,” he said. “There are people out there who think that everyone in this town is racist because of what’s been put out there.”
Warren, whose grandson is also black, said he’s hurt by people online telling the residents of Westport they should be ashamed of themselves and calling them racist.
“They’ve got us all put on the same level, and we’re all guilty by association, it seems like,” said Warren. “For me, I really don’t believe there’s racism here in this community. Torrence isn’t the first black student to be in that school, and yet this is the first accusation I’ve heard of anyone being a racist.”
Warren thinks what the community has here is a case of severe bullying, and bringing race into it is something done by people who have concocted that scenario in their heads.
“Bullying is everywhere, and it’s a terrible problem,” he said. “I’m not denying that that boy was bullied — he probably was, just like other children like him, but I don’t think it’s only because of the colour of his skin.”
Warren said he hopes the situation can be handled between the family and the school, and assures the Colliers the community supports them and their son.
“We’re a small town — 180 people,” he said. “We’re not trying to discriminate against anyone. We’re just trying to get along.”
Not all bad apples
Heather said the problems her son is having don’t involve everyone in the community, nor everyone in the school. In an email to officials she pointed out that in one instance of bullying, two students actually stood up for her son against his oppressor.
“It’s definitely a core group of people that do most of the bullying,” she said. However, they’ve been unsuccessful in isolating Torrence from those people, and stopping the violence against him.
The Colliers have been approved to remove their son from school for the remainder of the school year, and will home school in the coming weeks.
In September, Torrence will transfer from the school in Westport to Copper Ridge Academy in Baie Verte, however the Colliers will be responsible for bringing him the 40 kilometres each way.
“That’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. If we have to drive him, we have to drive him,” said Heather.
They have more meetings with the school board next week to discuss the future.
When asked where she sees this situation ending, Heather fought back tears, and paused to gain her composure.
“I want him to be happy again. I just want my son to feel happy.”
This is a recording Torrence Collier's mother made back in March after he came home talking about some bullies who were going around school telling everyone not to go to his birthday party.