At first, Gbahtuo Comgbaye, a West African immigrant, was more puzzled than worried when his 6-year-old son started coming home from school with bruises on his chest and neck.
His concern turned to alarm on a mid-September morning as he helped his child, Menduawor, get dressed for the day. The boy tearfully asked, "If my friends beat me up, and hurt me, and wanted to kill me, would you do something about it?"
The story that emerged: Menduawor, a slight, soft-spoken boy, was being routinely beaten by three bigger first-grade classmates at Patterson School in Southwest Philadelphia. They told him, "We don't like your name."
Philadelphia School District officials said Wednesday that they were extremely concerned about the allegations, and promised to launch an immediate and thorough inquiry.
Comgbaye described his growing horror as his son came home from school bruised and shaken day after day. He said that his pleas to the teacher and principal brought no relief and that a phone call and subsequent letter to the district superintendent got no response.
At the end of September, the boy was beaten so severely that his mother took him to the emergency room at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Hospital records show Menduawor was treated for chest and abdominal injuries, which physician Sarah Wood wrote were caused by blows from a person or object.
The family filed a police report shortly afterward.
Afraid for their son's safety, the Comgbayes have not sent Menduawor to school in two weeks, and pledge he will not return to Patterson. They said school administrators have called to warn them that the boy was being marked absent.
"We take the allegations very seriously," acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II said in an interview. "We don't have any tolerance for anything on the order of bullying or student-on-student violence. ... Our eyes are on this."
Comgbaye, interviewed at the family home, said he could not believe this was happening to his son - not in a neighborhood school, not in the United States, not after fleeing war-torn Liberia.
As he spoke, his son came into the living room.
"They keep beating me up," he said. "They pushed me, and I was bleeding."
Comgbaye said the incidents occurred in the classroom, in the hallways, and outside the school. Sometimes, it would be a quick punch, he said. Other times, the three stronger boys, all African American, would circle Menduawor and taunt him as they kicked and punched, he said.
He described his son as a quiet and studious child who had no trouble during kindergarten at Patterson.
The school is at 70th Street and Buist Avenue, on the border of the Eastwick and Elmwood neighborhoods, an area where there has been tension between African Americans and African immigrants. Members of the West African community said some African Americans have regarded the growing African-born population as an economic threat.
Refugees have been propelled here by political unrest, civil war, and genocide.
Comgbaye said that after Sept. 12, when his son began telling him about the beatings, other odd events suddenly made sense: One day, he had gone to pick up his son at school, and the boy ran to the car, jumped inside - and immediately wet himself. The child said he was afraid to go to the bathroom at school.
Comgbaye, referring to a file of letters and notes, said that once he realized what was happening, he wrote to the boy's teacher and asked for help. She responded, according to a copy of the note, "I will check this out. Thank you for writing to me! I appreciate that."
Comgbaye said he heard nothing more from her.
He decided that he or his wife, Rachael, would have to meet their son every day at the end of school.
On Sept. 27, he said, he was walking his son away from the school, holding him by the hand, when a bigger boy ran up and knocked Menduawor to the ground, leaving him cut and crying.
The assailant quickly ran away into a crowd of students. Menduawor said it was one of the three bullies who had been beating him.
The next day, Comgbaye said, he phoned the superintendent's office. Comgbaye, who came to the United States as a refugee in 2001, said he didn't understand the intricacies of local government or know the name of the superintendent, but wanted to contact the person in charge. He said he explained his son's situation to a woman in the office.
That same day, he said, he and his wife went to see the Patterson principal, Kenneth Jessup. Comgbaye said the principal told him, "We know about this already," and promised to move the ringleader to another classroom.
Comgbaye left to attend class at Holy Family University, where he is working toward a nursing degree. Later that day, he phoned the principal and was assured that the main assailant had been moved and would have no contact with Menduawor, Comgbaye said.
But that very day, Comgbaye said, their son came home from school more beaten and brutalized than ever. He and his wife learned that the boy who had been moved from class had joined his two accomplices as school was let out, then kicked and punched Menduawor "like a football."
The next morning, when the child complained of continuing pain in his stomach area, Rachael Comgbaye took him to Children's. Comgbaye said he later took the hospital discharge papers to Jessup, the principal, who said, "Oh my God, did I separate the wrong one?"
"I said, 'I'm not sending him here anymore,' " Comgbaye said he told the principal.
Efforts to contact Jessup for this article were unsuccessful.
On Oct. 1, Comgbaye wrote a letter to the superintendent, explaining all that had occurred and asking that his son be transferred to a "safe school where he will be able to learn."
He wrote that his son would not return to Patterson and that he was seeking help not only for his boy, "but for every child that has been and could potentially be hurt from the hands of troubled kids in this school."
Comgbaye said he received no response.
Nunery said the district has closely tracked incoming calls and mail and has no record of receiving either one from Comgbaye. "Doesn't mean it didn't happen," he said, adding that the district was now scrutinizing its files.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard called the alleged abuse "very disturbing" and reiterated: "A full investigation will be conducted on every single allegation raised by the father."
He and Nunery confirmed that communications had occurred between the father and the principal and that the principal had moved a child out of the class.
Gallard said the school has called the parents multiple times to say the boy must return to class. However, if a safety threat is identified, he said, the child could transfer to a new school without penalty.
Comgbaye said he was not sure what to do next. It's not safe for his son to return to Patterson. But the longer the boy is away from school, the more the child comes to think that he's the problem, Comgbaye said.
"I'm very, very, very upset," he said. "I don't know whether the School District wants for someone to die."
See a video interview with Gbahtuo Comgbaye about his son's ordeal at school at www.philly.com/beatings