January 09, 2019
Last Friday, a 16-year-old Norristown girl named Nya walked out of juvenile court at the Montgomery County Youth Center after pleading guilty to simple assault.
Soft-spoken and far from physically intimidating, Nya was saddled with both lingering injuries and painful memories from more than two years of harassment, threats and physical attacks by members of what police are calling “an impromptu fight club.”
Minutes earlier, the honors student had begrudgingly accepted a plea deal that saw the dismissal of disorderly conduct and harassment charges stemming from a December 13 fight.
Nya's court-appointed attorney told her it was a good deal, despite her mother Rae Dean’s staunch claim that she was a victim, targeted for assault that day by two girls – a former friend, 15, and her cousin – outside Central Montco Technical High School in Plymouth Meeting.
In that case, according to the police report, the father of an alleged attacker who’d been “previously suspended from the school for fighting” drove her there to “assist” her friend in what turned into a heated brawl.
The detective maintained that Nya arranged the fight, which is why she was called before the judge. Outside the courthouse, she seemed shell-shocked. It’s hard to blame her for that reaction.
Now, after getting beaten up, she has a misdemeanor on her criminal record. With her mother’s blessing, and out of fears for her family’s safety, she dropped out of school just days earlier.
Earlier this month, she enrolled in a cyber-school program to continue her path toward becoming a surgeon one day.
"She was defending herself because [the school district] failed to protect her. This is not justice served.” – Rae Dean
Court officials declined to allow PhillyVoice to cover the hearing on Friday, but Rae Dean shared details of the passionate plea she made before the judge on her daughter’s behalf.
“What’s appalling to me is that my child is the victim of bullying for at least two years and is now in a courtroom taking a deal,” Rae shared. “The message that’s sending to my child is deplorable. The system failed my child.
“She was defending herself because [the Norristown Area School District] failed to protect her," she told the judge. "She got attacked by a girl who was still on probation from kicking her until she was unconscious last year. This is not justice served.”
Hearing a fuller picture of the ongoing situation than detailed in police reports, the judge apparently heard the mother loudly and clearly.
From the bench, she sent a representative from the county’s juvenile probation office outside to talk to the family before they left. She also asked for the names of the girls who’d made Nya's high school experience a living hell.
According to Rae, the judge asked incredulously: “So you got in troublefor defending yourself?”
The answer she instantly heard: Yes. Exactly.
Seconds later Michael Capperella, the Plymouth Township detective handling the case, exited the building and quickly found himself face-to-face with an irate mother who questioned the thoroughness of his report.
He stuck with the narrative included in the report: that Nya not only arranged the fight but “threw a fruit cup” to initiate it when she saw the two classmates waiting outside school for her.
“There’s a very big difference between knowing a fight is going to happen and protecting yourself, and organizing the fight,” Rae said.
“I have video of her charging, holding her hands out, looking so happy, walking up like ‘What’s up?’” Capperella responded, stating that four Tech school officials he interviewed led him to believe that the fight between Nya and the two girls was in the "making" for the three days leading up to the incident.
“You only told one side of the story,” Rae told Capperella. “Either you have a bias or you’re a racist. I don’t know which one.”
That confrontation between a defensive detective and an angry parent lasted but a few minutes. But the aftershocks from the ongoing "fight club" – allegedly a group of about a dozen teenage girls – don’t seem ready to fade anytime soon in Norristown and beyond.
Information provided to PhillyVoice shows that district officials and police investigators are well aware that a pack of girls has been jumping and fighting peers in the Norristown area for some time now.
Teenagers in the area know this all too well since video of some attacks – both inside the Norristown Area and Central Montco Technical high schools and elsewhere – are regularly uploaded to social media sites including Instagram and Snapchat.
In some cases, adults have recorded and posted the videos which speak to a brazen disregard for any attempt to hold accountable those who initiate these fights, either at home or in the community.
(Warning: This video of three such fights contains violence and profane language.)
It’s a dangerous situation, and those being intimidated angrily claim that victims like Nya have been failed by educators, school security officers and the agencies sworn to serve and protect them.
Critics also allege that school officials failed to accurately report the incidents – classifying physical altercations as "arguments," for example – to protect their jobs, and the school's standing.
Rae claimed that school officials called students into their offices – after PhillyVoice called officials for comment about the ongoing situation – urging them to say Nya arranged the December fight. ("We need you to come forward and say you planned this fight or you're going to get suspended," she claimed of the tenor of those meetings.)
The very agencies that Rae hoped would protect her daughter aren’t saying much publicly about problems that extend beyond her case, which Nya said started more than two years ago when girls – and former friends – inexplicably turned against her.
In October 2017, after many months of intimidation, Nya was jumped at Norristown Area High School by two girls who would be expelled for a year.
The attack left her bruised, bloodied and suffering from migraines and post-traumatic stress to this day, maladies that Rae backs up with letters from neurologists at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
It culminated recently with the December 13 incident outside Central MontCo Tech. (Officials had urged Rae to split her days between the two schools as a way to avoid contact with the other girls, whose identities are being withheld by PhillyVoice because of privacy laws.)
Though a paper trail backs Rae and Nya’s chronology, school and law enforcement officials refused to discuss the specifics of the incidents and overarching issues.
“Due to student confidentiality, I have no response.” – Seth Schram, director, Central Montco Tech
A spokeswoman for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office said she could not comment on matters involving juveniles.
Plymouth Township police provided a heavily-redacted “incident report” from December 13 that includes the basics of the confrontation and the names of the school officials who were interviewed afterwards: Director Seth Schram, Assistant Director Angela King, Dean of Students Dana Johnson and School Security Officer Michael Bivins.
“Due to student confidentiality, I have no response,” Schram stated when contacted for comment by PhillyVoice earlier this month.
Christopher Dormer, superintendent of schools for the Norristown Area School District, said he was “unable to comment on any specific matters involving students due to privacy laws,” but spoke in general terms about school safety.
“Norristown Area School District has always and will continue to prioritize the safety and security of our students, staff, school buildings, families, and community members,” he wrote. “We are committed to actively partnering with students and their families to address issues and concerns as timely and proactively as possible.”
In regards to the October 2017 incident at Norristown Area High School – which falls in the jurisdiction of the West Norriton Police Department – Police Chief Dale Mabry said he could provide “basic information on this department’s response to the original assault.”
Both girls who attacked Nya were charged with assault and related offenses and petitioned into juvenile court, he said.
“I was also advised they were expelled by the school district from Norristown Area High School for 12 months,” Mabry added. “I heard the suspension was over. I hope everything remains calm.”
It hasn’t been calm.
An unredacted affidavit of probable cause related to the December fight at Tech offers substantially more details than the version provided by Plymouth Township police.
Rae said the narrative is misleading at best.
One one side is her daughter. On the other are two girls, including a sophomore at a therapeutic school in Horsham who was expelled after jumping Nya. That girl was found to have a knife in her bag at the time of the 2017 attack. The police report states that the girls were separated before officers arrived at the scene.
“During the last several weeks," the affidavit reads, "there has been numerous fights involving students from the Norristown Area High School and an impromptu ‘fight club’ has emerged." The document says the sophomore, made aware that the fight was finally going to happen, called her cousin, a student with a previous suspension for fighting at Norristown Area High School, who arrived at the December 13 confrontation with her father to join her relative.
The fight drew a “very large crowd gathered around them, cheering them on and recording,” the affidavit reads, and both girls sustained “marks, scratches in and around their faces.” (The father did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment on his involvement in the fight. The police report makes no mention of him facing any criminal charges.)
(Warning: Video of the fight itself contains violence and coarse language.)
Rae told PhillyVoice that when she reached out recently to a Norristown city councilman, he told her he couldn’t get involved “particularly because of that family,” which she now believes is being protected by local officials.
As for the issues of bias and race, she noted that Plymouth Township Police Department faces such allegations from the Greater Norristown NAACP.
"(Police) assumed my daughter was guilty because of what (the other girls) told them," Rae said. The detective "also treated me with prejudice as the mother of a person of color, assuming she was in a 'fight club' even though I told him over and over again what the situation really was."
While answers about how the reported “fight club” has been permitted to maraud around town with very little pushback are difficult for Rae to ascertain, she wanted to go public with her daughter’s story in the hopes that the situation would change.
"The system failed my daughter. It allowed these girls to harass my daughter for two years straight," she said. "It's a situation that could have been avoided if the schools did the right thing. I feel so broken and confused on how or what I could've done.
"The school made promises, and they failed to protect my daughter. They didn't keep their word."
Though Nya said the friction started back in her freshman year, things escalated decidedly in October 2017 when she was pulled down to the ground from behind and kicked until she “blacked out.”
She didn’t see the attack coming, though she’d heard whispers that a classmate was planning a confrontation. Rae questioned the response of Norristown Area High School officials, saying “they were not even helpful” despite telling them of the ongoing harassment before things turned violent.
“To this day, we don’t know why this happened,” Rae said.
“They let them jump me, mom,” is what Nya told Rae during a frantic call after the assault, before adding that the school’s security guard tried to slap handcuffs on her while her attackers laughed at her from across the hallway.
Rae’s request to see security footage of the attack was denied. The attackers were put on probation and expelled from school for a year. They allegedly got around a no-contact order by having their friends harass Nya at school and work.
Nya, who’d never before been in a fight, saw her grades slip from A’s and B’s. She’d fall asleep in class. She stopped socializing, and was eventually prescribed antidepressant medicine which had her feeling out of sorts even on the day she went to court.
“She also suffers from migraines from being kicked in the head,” Rae said. "She's isolated up in her room. She's just not her smiling self. She wasn't going to any of her dances. She wasn't going out. It didn't instantly dawn on me, but then I realized she was hiding, she was scared. This is not my kid, but they're putting the responsibility on me."
The decision to split school days between Norristown Area High School and Central Montco Tech came after spending the summer with family in New York to avoid another attack.
“Maybe three weeks into the school year this year, they were talking about jumping her again,” shared Rae, noting that one of the attackers shared the same schedule as Nya at Tech.
On December 11, Rae went to the school to tell officials that “these same girls are threatening to jump her [daughter] again." She told them she believed that nine girls had been jumped by what she believed to be a "gang.”
“I'm afraid for my daughter's life,” she said. “These girls are jumping girls anywhere: on school property, while they are getting off the bus, anywhere.
Nya "called me from school panicking. (The girl’s cousin) is telling everyone in school they’re coming up to the bus stop and jump me."
Rae rushed down to the school, knowing that the "fight club" had recently dragged another girl off a bus and attacked her.
“When I told them that something has to be done, that these girls are in the neighborhood jumping people, I was told that’s a separate situation, that it’s a community thing, not a school thing,” she continued. “What? Why are you missing this? It’s the same girls.”
A day later, Nya missed school because of an appointment with a neurologist to look into her symptoms – vomiting, sleeplessness and headaches.
At that visit, the neurologist asked whether Nya had been involved with “any incidents involving hits to the head.” Her symptoms suddenly made sense. Yes, they replied.
CHOP provided a letter for Nya to give to the school offering information about how to help students suffering from migraines to get through the day.
"We sincerely appreciate your understanding and assistance in optimizing Nya's attendance and performance in school related activities with an appropriate regard for her diagnosis," it read, in part.
The next afternoon she would fight near the buses outside Central Montco Tech.
It would be her last day attending either school.
After a five-day suspension stemming from the fight led into the holiday break, Nya would formally leave for good.
Around sunset on the day that Nya pleaded guilty to a crime they believe was a case of self-defense, mother and daughter sat on a living room couch in their Norristown rowhome. They got to talking about their years of turmoil.
No, Nya isn’t a part of a “fight club,” they said. Rather, she’s been targeted by one that sends threatening messages via Snapchat accompanying photos of her workplace and home.
Rae talked about the judge standing up at the bench, imploring probation officials in the room to help remedy the situation.
“It adds insult to injury that this young lady (who twice assaulted Nya) is walking around free, boasting on the internet about how she’s on house arrest while you’re talking about justice being served,” said Rae, who had to allow county officials to come into her house so they could investigate their home life.
“’You mess with us, you get jumped.’ They’re not scared. They say it to you outright." – Nya
“This has been years of no peace," she continued. The judge told me, "'I can assure you this will be handled. You have been pushed to this point. Nobody on my watch gets away with this.’ I think she was pissed off and even embarrassed.”
“I don’t know why they picked a beef with me, but it continued throughout my freshman and start of my sophomore year,” said Nya, whose schedule and locker location were changed to little avail.
“I always told Nya that there’s to be no fighting," Rae added. "You’re there to get an education and get out, not stake some sort of claim to being a ‘bad girl.' But they just kept menacing her.”
Nya started figuring out when certain behaviors – like being asking “what the f*** are you looking at?” out of the blue – were harbingers of potential physical confrontations, like the one in October 2017 between her first-period Spanish and second-period pre-calculus classes.
“I had my binder and folders in hands, and headphones on listening to music while walking to class. That’s when they came up behind me. I didn’t see or hear anything before someone grabbed my hair bun, dragged me down and started kicking me until I blacked out,” she recalled.
After the attack, a school security guard pulled Nya into an office and said she needed to write a statement. "To me, that’s the last thing I want to hear," she said. "They see my face is swollen. Give me a moment to gather myself.”
One of the girls who attacked her would drop out of school after learning she’d been expelled for a year. Her little sister – found guilty of having a weapon on school property and simple assault after that attack – would not. She was one of the two girls who confronted Nya outside Tech last month.
“If they knew she was coming back to school, they should have notified us at the very least,” Rae said.
Nya catalogued other incidents where “fight club” members attacked classmates – including an assault where a frying pan was used as a weapon – to seemingly little response.
“’You mess with us, you get jumped.’ They’re not scared. They say it to you outright,” Nya said.
“They think that’s OK. They post it online and boast about it. These girls are in fights constantly,” added her mother, noting that some of the videos are posted by a man who’s “known for hitting females.”
“You can hear him in the videos, an adult taking these young girls to fight,” Rae said. “People’s kids have died for less than this. That could have been my child. What if she didn’t wake up?”
Hearing the detective say that he knew about “nine jumpings” in recent weeks didn’t sit very well with Rae. In fact, it left her with two simple questions for school and law enforcement officials: "why isn’t anything being done about it, and what are you going to do?”
The perpetrators have been arrested and punished, but that comes as little comfort for a mother and other parents who are aghast that it seems to continue unabated, with such brazenness.
Nya’s seen videos of fights involving students without a violent bone in their bodies. By defending themselves or their friends, though, they face suspensions.
After recent threats of violence, she got sent home from her job at a local big-box store because she was late.
“I’ve gotten messages like, ‘I’ll pull up to your job and jump you,’ that people want to spit on my mom,’” Nya said.
“In a sense, I never really liked (Norristown) High School, it's a bad school, but I do feel pushed out," she added. "I took every right step and now I’m adjusting again. I never wanted to fight. If I did, it was because I didn’t want to get hit. There are no consequences at Norristown.
“Now I’m walking around paranoid, turning around all day since they could come up and sneak me again.”
It breaks Rae's heart to hear that.
“I thought I was doing everything I could to keep her safe, but it’s still affecting her mentally and physically," said Rae, who is contemplating legal action against the school district. "I'm tired of constantly worrying about whether my daughter will be jumped.
"This is gross negligence. This is the aftermath of them not handling the situation. It's 2019 and this is still going on. They're still jumping my and other people's kids. Where is the justice in that?"