Attorney general announces Thomas Jefferson high school investigations

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Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced two investigations into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Wednesday, one into the withholding of National Merit commendations from students and another into whether changes to the school’s admissions policy violated state law.

Miyares said there was possibly reason to believe that the withholding of the commendations was based on race or ethnicity, though he declined to share any evidence for that claim.

“To the extent that withholding any of these awards at Thomas Jefferson High School was based on race, national origin or any other protected status under the Virginia Human Rights Act, that is unlawful,” Miyares said in a press conference at the Korean Community Center in Annandale, less than a mile from the elite public high school. “That is why I’m announcing today that my Office of Civil Rights is opening an investigation into this very issue. If the law was broken, my office will protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jeffersson students and their families.”

Miyares went on to say that changes to the school’s admissions policy may have violated Virginia law when they resulted in a decline in the number of Asian students admitted to the school. The governor’s school admits students from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church.

In 2020, as concerns over the lack of racial diversity in the school’s student body rose, the Fairfax County School Board adopted a new policy that granted admissions to top-achieving students in every middle school in Thomas Jefferson’s feeder area. It also eliminated standardized tests from the admissions process and capped the number of students that could come from each school. In the following years, the percentage of Asian students at the school has decreased while the number of Black and Hispanic students has risen.

In September, a U.S Appeals Court heard arguments in a lawsuit from parents challenging that the admissions standards violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment equal protection clause. The policy was initially stopped in district court before the appeals court reversed the decision and allowed it to proceed while deciding the case. Parents appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but their petition for an emergency ruling was denied. Miyares said that while the federal courts have yet to find that the policy violated federal law, his office will investigate whether it violates state law.

“The idea of Thomas Jefferson High School is to have the most talented high schoolers and provide them with the opportunity to further refine their skills in science and technology and excel,” Miyares said Wednesday. “Sadly, today, our announcement is not just on the National Merit awards. It’s also the change to Thomas Jefferson’s admissions policy that has undermined the excellence in favor of a system engineered to achieve … preferred balances on the races, rather than actual racial equity.

Last month, parents at the school alleged that the National Merit commendations had been deliberately withheld from students even as they prepared college applications. The allegations made the rounds on several conservative media outlets over the holidays and on Tuesday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin sent a letter to Miyares calling for an investigation.

“I was stunned by news reports alleging that information about National Merit Awards, as determined by student PSAT scores, was withheld from students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology until after important deadlines for college scholarships had passed,” Youngkin said in the letter.

National Merit awards are given to students who score among the top roughly 50,000 students in the nation on the PSAT. Of those 50,000 recipients, only about 16,000 are considered semi-finalists who can go on to compete for scholarships through the program. The other 34,000 are considered “commended students.” Their scores are not high enough to qualify as semi-finalists, but some college admissions sites recommend noting the commendation on college applications.

National Merit Award semi-finalists were notified of their qualification by the school and Fairfax County Public Schools, which operates the magnet school. But according to the parents, students who received commendations were not notified by the school before early applications to colleges and universities went out.

Last month, a spokesperson for Fairfax schools told InsideNoVa that the division was working to correct the situation.

“FCPS understands the hard work and dedication of each and every student who competes for college acceptance and scholarship opportunities. Once the issue regarding the fall 2022 notifications was realized, counselors sent emails and made follow-up calls to each college where these students had applied and informed them of the National Merit Scholarship Commendations,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We are continuing to look into this matter and will take any necessary steps to ensure consistency in appropriate and timely notification of National Merit recognitions going forward.”

The controversy began when a local schools activist published an article in City Journal, a publication of the Conservative Manhattan Institute. In the article, Asra Nomani claimed that Thomas Jefferson’s principal, Ann Bonitatibus, and director of student services had intentionally withheld notification of the commendations as part of a deliberate “war on merit” campaign.

U.S. News and World Report regularly ranks Thomas Jefferson in the top 10 high schools nationally. On Wednesday, Prince William School Board Chair Babur Lateef told InsideNoVa that he trusts the leadership at Thomas Jefferson and Fairfax County schools.

“FCPS has done a terrific job in bringing in Dr. Bonitatibus as principal in 2018. She, her counseling department, her faculty and staff, and all the participating school boards have made TJ consistently number one. This is not an accident,” Lateef said. “She has done this while making sure every student there has access to every opportunity. I trust FCPS to determine what happened regarding the awards in question. I also trust them to coordinate a corrective path moving forward. I continue to stand by and fully support Dr. Bonitatibus and her entire staff.”

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