The 19-second, smartphone-filmed clip of three girls fighting inside North Penn High School inspired protests, calls to action and, this week, criminal charges.
But was the scuffle a typical case of a teenage dispute turned violent? Or was it, as Sanaa Beaufort and her family have asserted in the months since, an attack fueled by Islamophobic bullying?
“The victim has now become a suspect,” Beaufort’s mother, Atiba Wilkins, said in an interview Thursday, the day after supporters staged a rally on her 17-year-old daughter’s behalf on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse. “This is not a ‘girl fight.’ There is more going on here than that.”
Beaufort, a rising senior who is Black, and two of her white female classmates got into the fight May 4 inside the cafeteria of the school in Lansdale. A video of the scuffle posted on social media says it has been viewed more than 167,000 times. After months of investigation by Towamencin Township police, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele this week charged all three girls with mutual combat assault, a third-degree misdemeanor.
Steele, in a statement, said a review of the case “found no evidence that racial or religious bias motivated this fight,” and that “all three girls were mutually engaged and responsible for the fight.” He added: “We have been, are and remain committed to fairness and justice for all in our system of criminal justice.”
Neither he nor his office have publicly identified the teens charged in the case or offered details about the investigation. The Inquirer reached out to the parents of one of the girls involved, but they did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The other family could not be reached.
Only Beaufort and her family have been speaking out about the incident. They say they cooperated with the probe but only the two other students should be charged. According to Wilkins, those teens are seen on surveillance footage waiting to attack her daughter as she exits a bathroom. Filing a criminal charge against Beaufort, she said, lumps the group together and dismisses the bullying behavior at the root of the conflict.
During the fight, Wilkins said, one of the girls shoved Beaufort, and then the other walked over and hit her from behind. The teen’s hijab was pulled off — she believes deliberately — as the two other girls allegedly said: “We got you now.”
The full surveillance video of the incident has not been released by the North Penn School District. A spokesperson for the district, in a statement, apologized to Beaufort for not allowing her to retrieve her hijab more quickly, and said the school “resolves to move forward in a manner in which this is not repeated.”
Beaufort asserts that the fight capped off months of tension between her and the two other girls, who threatened to beat her up at the school and mocked her after she said she told one of them to stop saying the N-word in videos posted on TikTok.
“I’m not a fighter,” Beaufort said. “I want to resolve things with my words, which is why I tried talking to them in the first place about something that made me uncomfortable.”
North Penn, a regional school, pulls students from the predominantly white communities of Lansdale, North Wales, and Hatfield as well as smaller surrounding towns. Wilkins and her family have lived in the district nearly 15 years.
Word of the fight quickly spread. In the following weeks, groups including the Ambler branch of the NAACP spoke at protests outside of the school about the attack, which occurred during Ramadan.
Those initial demonstrations were echoed Wednesday at the rally in Norristown, during which Beaufort and her supporters implored Steele to withdraw the charges against her.
In his statement, Steele said his office offered to let all three girls enter the county’s Youth Aid Panel, a diversionary program for first-time offenders that offers community service, behavioral counseling, and other programs in lieu of prosecution. Once successfully completed, the defendant’s criminal record is expunged.
Wilkins says her family rejects that offer. As a teenager in Philadelphia, she said, she went through a similar program for conflicts she was involved in. Back then, she said, it was appropriate for her: She was getting into fights, and the program helped steer her away from that behavior.
But her daughter, she said, has never gotten into trouble and is active in multiple extracurricular activities at the school, including its African American Awareness Club and its Cultural Proficiency, Diversity and Equity program.
Beaufort only got involved in the fight, Wilkins said, after first being aggressively confronted, and then shoved, by one of the other girls.
“I hold my daughter accountable for her actions,” she said. “If she had an issue with anger management, we would put her in that program. That doesn’t apply here.”
Beaufort, meanwhile, said she has no interest in returning to North Penn for her senior year.
“I just don’t feel safe there,” she said. “It’s sad, because I cared about that school and the community in it so much, and now I feel abandoned.”