A few weeks after Sébastien Pruett, then 4, began school last fall, a classmate attacked him, bending his finger back and slapping his face hard enough that Sébastien shrieked.

The other child didn't understand it was Sébastien's turn on the slide, according to an email from his pre-kindergarten teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School at 7200 NE 11th Ave.

Sébastien quickly recovered, and his parents initially brushed off the incident. But they say it was only the first of seven violent scuffles—all instigated by the same 4-year-old boy.

Beginning in late January, the attacks escalated: Sébastien was choked by the classmate at least three times in the space of a few weeks.

Sébastien started having nightmares.

"He dreamed the boy threw him out the window," says his mother, Sherly Paul-Pruett. "He started wetting the bed."

As school gets underway this week, the Pruetts' quest to get Portland Public Schools to keep their son safe at school highlights what critics say is a chronic problem for the district—a failure to address parent complaints in a systemic and effective way.

"State and federal law require that all Oregon schools keep students safe from bullying," says Mat dos Santos, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which is investigating the Pruetts' case. "Community activists and families have identified numerous situations that seem to point to a problem with PPS's ability to protect children of color, or to treat them fairly when it comes to discipline."

PPS, like many school districts across the country, has long struggled to establish school disciplinary policies that don't disproportionately punish minority children. While there's no evidence race played a decisive factor in this case, Sébastien is biracial; the other child is black, the Pruetts say.

"The teachers didn't know how to handle it," says Nick Pruett, Sébastien's father. "After that, everyone was trying to make sure they didn't get themselves in trouble."

The district disputes that characterization of what happened.

"We can't discuss details of this case," says PPS spokesman Harry Esteve. "We can say that we have made every effort to resolve this, including the direct involvement of the interim superintendent at the time. Part of our mission as a public school district is to ensure every child who walks through our doors has an equal opportunity for success no matter their background."

Privacy laws restrict what the district can disclose. However, the Pruetts' correspondence with the district, which the family shared with WW, makes clear that Sébastien was repeatedly attacked in incidents that went far beyond playground roughhousing.

During recess in late January, the classmate choked, hit and scratched Sébastien. In the days that followed, the child choked him again in a conflict over who should get to sit on the teacher's lap during reading time, Sébastien's parents say. A third choking at recess left a red mark on Sébastien's neck after the boy slammed Sébastien to the ground.

Nick Pruett met with the teacher. He says she told him she didn't know how to deal with the other child.

The situation was complicated by the fact the boy has special education needs. The Pruetts were told this, but little more. The Pruetts say they suspect the other child's needs weren't being met either.

"We had to be the ones to suggest that maybe this child needed someone in the class to assist him," Sherly Paul-Pruett said in April 19 testimony to the School Board.

A grandfather of the other boy declined to discuss the series of incidents. He disagrees, though, with the Pruetts' assessment of the school. "I think they do a good job of taking care of every child," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In early March, the parents met with Woodlawn Principal Andrea Porter-Lopez, and she agreed to place an additional adult in the classroom.

But there were three more confrontations, two of them violent. On March 23, an assistant principal was in the room when Sébastien was "slammed to the ground, mounted, and held down until a teacher had to physically remove the other boy," Nick Pruett later wrote.

Sébastien left school after that.

The principal offered the Pruetts two choices for what to do next, they say. The first: The school could add another staff member permanently to the classroom. Adding adults to the classroom, the Pruetts say, had already been tried and failed.

There was a second option: move their son to another school. But the Pruetts stood by the principle that their son shouldn't have to move.

"It is unacceptable to force a victim of bullying to leave their school in order to be kept safe," says the ACLU's dos Santos.

Sébastien Pruett. (Sam Gehrke)
Sébastien Pruett. (Sam Gehrke)

The family sought help from a senior PPS director, the district ombudsman and the School Board. (The senior director presented them with a third option, they say: Sébastien could move to the kindergarten class at the school for the remainder of the year. But kindergarten was a nonstarter, because their son would still have to share recess with the other boy.)

"I think they're doing the other boy a disfavor," Sherly testified April 19 after her son had been out of school for nearly a month. "Right now, if [the boy] does this, he's 4, but in 10 years, when he's 14, 15, they're calling the cops on him. I want both children to get what they deserve."

The Pruetts say no one explained why school officials couldn't move the boy who'd attacked Sébastien.

PPS officials appear never to have disputed that there was a problem. But they didn't find a solution that worked for the Pruetts. Ultimately, Interim Superintendent Bob McKean wrote a letter responding to their formal complaint but declining to present any new options.

The School Board is preparing to review the district's complaint process, but the Pruetts believe the real problem is that the district's bureaucracy protects its own.

"No one holds them accountable," says Nick.

This year, Sébastien will begin school at a publicly funded, privately run charter school in Portland, hoping for a fresh start.

"It's not like he used to be about it," Nick says. "Before, it was all he talked about: 'When do I get to go back?'"

(Sam Gehrke)
(Sam Gehrke)