Youngkin seeks probe of delayed awards at elite high school
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin called Tuesday for an investigation of a prestigious high school, after some parents there said they were never notified of academic commendations awarded to their children.
Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares, a fellow Republican, to launch the probe of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County amid complaints from some parents and activists who say the school chose to withhold the commendations to downplay individual achievement in favor of equity.
“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 in a news release.
Youngkin suggested the failure to notify students of their awards could be a violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on race and other factors. Youngkin’s office did not immediately respond to questions about how the awards relate to human rights.
Some parents at TJHSST have been critical of school administrators after more than 200 students at the school received belated notification that they had achieved “commended student” status in the National Merit Scholarship competition. Students who receive the “commended student” award finish in the top 3% nationally on a standardized test, but below the top 1% that qualifies them as a scholarship semifinalist.
Shawnna Yashar, whose son attends the school, said her son received a letter dated last September informing him of the commendation, but that the letters weren’t distributed until Nov. 21. She said parents received no notification at all, and that she and her husband happened to learn about the commendation after reviewing a stack of her son’s papers.
She said once the kids were notified of the honor, many of them, including her son, immediately opened up their laptops to update the Common App, the program that many students use to submit their college applications. But the Nov. 21 notification came after the early-application deadlines that are increasingly common for students seeking to attend elite universities.
Yashar also pointed out that the commendation can be useful in helping kids obtain scholarships.
Yashar said that when she asked administrators about the delay in notification, she was told that school officials were considering how to distribute the awards in a way that wouldn’t hurt the feelings of kids who didn’t receive them.
That comment in particular fueled ire among parents who have been upset over changes made in recent years to the school’s admissions policies. The school regularly ranks as one of the best public schools in the nation, and admission is highly competitive. For many years, African American and Hispanic students were woefully underrepresented at the school.
Changes made to admissions policies in the last year or so have increased Black and Hispanic representation, but critics say the changes have reduced a focus on merit and achievement and come at the expense of Asian Americans, who had constituted roughly 70% of the student body. The new admissions policies are the subject of ongoinglitigation.
“Since day one, we the parents have identified clearly that this is a war on merit,” said Asra Nomani, a journalist, activist and former TJ parent who broke the story about the delayed notifications.
In a statement, Fairfax County Public Schools said it has contacted colleges where commended students applied to inform them of the recognition.
“We share (Youngkin’s) desire to get to the facts surrounding the delay,” the school system said.
It said a third-party investigation is ongoing, but it attributes the delay to “a unique situation due to human error.”
Nomani, though, said she has evidence that the school has routinely failed to notify parents of the commendation in recent years.
Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell on Tuesday mocked the governor on Twitter for elevating the question of when students receive award certificates to the level of a human rights investigation.
“The AG ought to be investigating the governor’s anti-LGBT policies, instead of this,” Surovell said, referring to efforts by the Youngkin administration to roll back protections for transgender students implemented by his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam.
Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said Tuesday that the attorney general has received Youngkin’s request “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.”
Miyares also scheduled a news conference Wednesday in Alexandria to address the issue.