Be the role models kids need

Published on June 16, 2014

Another week and another bad news story from this province making the trip around the world and back.

This time, it’s the story of Torrence Collier, an 11-year-old Grade 5 student from St. Peter’s Academy in Westport who says he has been subject to racially motivated bullying by his classmates.

Torrence’s mother, Heather Collier, told CBC that her son — the only black child in Westport, a community of around 200 people on the Baie Verte Peninsula — endures slurs and threats regularly from other students. He’s been called the

N-word and a “rapist,” she said.

School was becoming like a prison for her son. Torrence, she said, “couldn’t take the daily bullying anymore.”

Since the CBC story aired last week, the Colliers have taken Torrence out of St. Peter’s Academy for the rest of the school year. According to the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, several students at the school have been suspended for bullying.

The RCMP acknowledged there is an investigation into the Collier family’s allegations.

Parents and community members in Westport have responded to the media coverage. Several residents have said they aren’t aware of racist attitudes in their community, and contend that Torrence is the bully. They say their community is a far better place than the Colliers have made it out to be.

No doubt Westport is a great place to live, with many wonderful people. But denying racially charged bullying exists seems a stretch, considering students have been suspended at St. Peter’s and the Colliers have pulled Torrence out of school. The kids are picking up the vernacular from somewhere.

Adults understand the social implications of the N-word. Kids don’t.

We recognize what a rapist is and how ludicrous it would be call an 11-year-old one. Kids see it as a superficial, meaningless insult.

The N-word is a learned term, as is rapist. Neither appears in an elementary school curriculum. Neither makes the Grade 5 spelling list.

But somehow they both seem to have ended up at St. Peter’s Academy.

And somehow they’ve both landed Torrence Collier and his community in the news.

In a school environment with young children, especially in a community where racial diversity may very well come down to a single child, innocent and ignorant elementary school students might be expected to make a comment about Torrence’s skin colour.

Race, like any other distinctive physical feature, can be instantly observed. In a setting like Torrence’s, where a black child is an outlier, that factor is magnified exponentially.

What I’m saying is that for a kid to acknowledge another student’s physical difference is normal.

Without all the social conditioning that comes with growing up, an accidentally insensitive but innocent comment about a person’s appearance is to be expected.

But bringing up race with the intention of causing another person hurt, and using language specifically designed to degrade, is a different ball game altogether.

When words like the N-word enter a child’s recess-time vocabulary, “kids will be kids” no longer applies. These are imports from the messed-up adult world, which poison the way kids see each other and prey on differences kids should be learning to embrace.

Words like rapist and the N-word are invasive species in the classroom environment.

And just like dandelions or moose, they can be near impossible to control once they’ve settled in.

The school district has said it has held diversity and anti-bullying presentations at St. Peter’s Academy. But the key for keeping kids’ values in check, for teaching them how to treat each other and for showing them how to respect one another won’t come from a workshop.

Rather, it’ll come from the people kids look up to at home — the adults who model how to behave and how to treat one another.

Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is a second-year journalism student at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at patrickbutler5@yahoo.ca.