Youngkin calls for investigation into Fairfax Co. school accused of delay in informing students of national recognition

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is urging Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate a Fairfax County school some parents say delayed notifying students of a national recognition.

In a letter Tuesday, Youngkin said he is “stunned” by the possibility that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is regularly honored as one of the country’s best high schools, was delayed informing kids that they had been recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation as “Commended Students.”

Youngkin said the delay may have violated the Virginia Human Rights Act. He added that the delayed notification of academic awards “appears to be a deliberate attempt to disadvantage high performing students.”

The attorney general has received the letter and “has been carefully reviewing and evaluating the allegations of racial discrimination at Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology since the very first public reports,” a Miyares spokeswoman said in a statement.

Miayres has a news conference scheduled for Wednesday morning “to address Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has initiated an independent, third-party investigation into the matter, a spokeswoman said.

“Should the Virginia Attorney General’s Office initiate an investigation, FCPS stands ready to work with our partners at the state level,” the spokeswoman said.

Allegations of the delayed notification first surfaced in the publication City Journal on Dec. 21. Education activist Asra Nomani, who was part of the group that sued the county over the high school’s revised admissions policy, wrote that school leaders have for years failed to inform students of their National Merit recognition.

The efforts, Nomani said, are part of the school system’s “war on merit” campaign.

About 50,000 students across the country who have the highest PSAT scores are deemed National Merit award winners, or “Commended Students.” About 16,000 of them are qualified as semifinalists and are eligible to compete for scholarships, according to the program’s website.

The delay in notifying Thomas Jefferson students, parents say, prevented students from including the recognition on their college applications, particularly those who applied to schools at their early decision deadlines.

Letters of Commendation are typically issued in late September, according to the program’s website.

In its statement Tuesday afternoon, the county said, “Our preliminary understanding is that the delay this fall was a unique situation due to human error.”

County staff members also contacted colleges that students applied to so they’d be aware of the recognition, the school system said.

Shawnna Yashar, whose son is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High, said her son reported receiving the notification letter Nov. 14, but it was dated September 2022. When they received the letters, her son said students started editing their college applications.

Yashar sent an email to Principal Ann Bonitatibus to determine what happened to the letters, and Bonitatibus told her she signed them within 48 hours of getting them. She tasked Director of Student Services Brandon Kosatka with distributing them, Yashar said.

“He said that, yes, they had received them from the principal, but they were holding onto them until they could find a time to hand them out to the students, that wouldn’t be as conspicuous and can be more discreet,” Yashar said. “And so the other students who didn’t receive the awards wouldn’t feel so bad about not getting them.”

Anecdotally, Yashar said, students at other Fairfax County schools were notified of the recognition, and in some cases had celebratory breakfasts.

“It’s stressful enough on these kids when they’re applying for universities, you never know what these colleges are looking for in the application,” Yashar said. “You just don’t need one more hurdle or roadblock put into their way as they’re trying to embark on the next chapter of their life and pick which college or university is a good fit for them.”

In calling for the investigation, Youngkin’s letter references the attorney general’s recent probe of the Loudoun County school system’s handling of two sexual assaults carried out by the same student.

“Just as Virginia parents deserve answers and assurances that the safety of their children will never be compromised, they also deserve transparency when it comes to student achievements,” Youngkin’s letter stated.

On the night Youngkin released his letter, Parents and students of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology spoke out Tuesday night.

School superintendent Michelle Reid told a crowd gathered in the school library that human error caused the students to be notified two weeks late. She also said that the entire school system’s awards notification system was inconsistent, varying from school to school and is in need of improvement.

One 2019 Thomas Jefferson graduate, a current Stanford University student, attended the meeting and urged everyone to wait for the facts.

“Not everything that everyone is reading in the news is entirely grounded in fact … things might not have been handled in the best way, but I also wanted to come in and urge restraint,” the student said.

Reid said that the scope was still being determined for the investigation being undertaken by the school system and she hopes to have some answers about the delayed notifications by the end of the month.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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