Youngkin calls for investigation of Thomas Jefferson HS over delayed student award notices

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) An outcry stoked by conservative activists over Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) allegedly failing to promptly announce a student academic honor has reached the Virginia governor’s office.

In a letter released this morning (Tuesday), Gov. Glenn Youngkin urged Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate the Fairfax County magnet school after it reportedly didn’t notify students commended by the National Merit Scholarship Program until after early college applications were due.

“We need to get to the bottom of what appears to be an egregious, deliberate attempt to disadvantage high-performing students at one of the best schools in the country,” Youngkin said. “Parents and students deserve answers and Attorney General Miyares will initiate a full investigation.”

Fairfax County Public Schools says it has initiated a third-party, independent investigation of its own but “stands ready to work with our partners at the state level,” should Miyares decide to pursue a review.

“Our preliminary understanding is that the delay this fall was a unique situation due to human error,” an FCPS spokesperson said. “The investigation will continue to examine our records in further detail and we will share key findings with our community.”

The school system said in a statement on Friday (Dec. 30) that families were notified as soon as the lapse “came to light.” Staff also sent emails and made follow-up calls to each college where the affected students had applied.

“FCPS understands the hard work and dedication of each and every student who competes for college acceptance and scholarship opportunities,” FCPS said. “We remain committed to supporting every student in reaching their full potential.”

The National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes students who receive the highest scores in the country on the preliminary SAT, essentially a practice for the main standardized test considered by most colleges and universities for admissions.

According to the National Merit website, about 50,000 students qualify for the program every year based on an index score calculated by doubling the sum of their reading, writing and math scores.

Notifications are sent out in late September, with about two-thirds of those students being commended and one-third advancing as semi-finalists. Only about 7,250 students win actual scholarships each year.

However, FCPS only announced the school’s semi-finalists in September. Commended students at TJ didn’t learn they had gotten the honor until teachers handed out certificates on Nov. 14, Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani said in the Fairfax County Times.

The Coalition for TJ sued Fairfax County Public Schools in 2021 over changes to the admissions system that were designed to boost diversity at the magnet school. The lawsuit is currently in a federal appeals court.

Nomani said she learned about the issue from Shawnna Yashar, a member of the Fairfax County Parents Association, which was incorporated in June 2021 by leaders of the Open FCPS campaign that urged schools to reopen early in the pandemic.

Since publishing last Thursday (Dec. 29), Nomani’s story has gotten picked up by several, mostly conservative outlets, including Fox News and the Daily Mail. Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears tweeted on Saturday (Dec. 31) that she had “reached out” to Youngkin and Miyares about a possible investigation.

The Fairfax County Parents Association and other groups have called for TJ principal Ann Bonitatibus to be fired and are planning to hold a rally outside the school this afternoon, according to WUSA9.

FCPS confirmed that Superintendent Michelle Reid is scheduled to meet with families this evening “to listen to their concerns.”

Parent and 11th District Republican Committee Vice Chair Srilekha Palle told WUSA9 she considers the delayed notifications “a criminal act.” Harry Jackson, another Coalition for TJ founder and brief GOP school board candidate hopeful, claimed administrators “wanted to downplay the significance of these awards to students in the name of equity.”

“I believe this failure may have caused material harm to those students and their parents, and that this failure may have violated the Virginia Human Rights Act,” Youngkin said in his letter to Miyares.

The letter doesn’t say how the lack of merit scholarship notifications might violate the Virginia Human Rights Act, which protects individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, sex and other characteristics.

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