Last month, Leah highlighted how the principal at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), an elite school in Fairfax, Virginia, had been reportedly hiding from students if they qualified for merit scholarships. Those affected claimed civil rights violations, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) evidently agrees. On Tuesday, he sent a letter to Attorney General Jason Miyares, also a Republican, urging him to use his authority to investigate the high school. Less than 24 hours later, Miyares gave a press conference close to the school confirming that he is indeed launching an investigation to see if students' civil rights were violated.
In a press release from Save Merit, Asra Q. Nomani, whose son graduated in 2021 from TJ and just recently learned he is a National Merit Commended Student, pointed to "a pattern and practice of systemic injustice at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology by the administrators against students and families," adding they "have been waging a civil rights battle for two years against a school board that is engaging in systemic injustice against our families, and now we see through the withholding of National Merit."
Youngkin's letter revealed he was "stunned" by reports that merit award information was withheld. "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," the governor added.
Not only is there a clear statute where the school may have violated students' civil rights, but the attorney general is granted that authority to investigate, as Youngkin also made clear.
"As you know, the Attorney General has statutory authority pursuant to §§2.2-520 and 2.2-3906 and 3907 of the Code of Virginia to investigate violations of the Virginia Human Rights Act," his letter went on to say.
Early on in his press briefing, Miyares emphasized he wanted to make clear that "to the extent that withholding any of those 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." It is why Miyares announced that his Office of Civil Rights "is opening an investigation into this very issue" and that "if the law was broken, my office will both protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jefferson students and their family."
The governor in his letter also made mention of other investigations he and Miyares had worked on together, as well as campaign promises from the 2021 campaign, especially when it comes to investigating Loudoun County. This is another part of Northern Virginia, which has also been rocked by scandals.
"As authorized by my Executive Order 4, your investigation into the Loudoun County School Board and school administrators found that the School Division and School Board, at the very least withheld key details and most likely knowingly lied to parents about the disturbing sexual assaults that occurred in 2021," his letter mentioned early on.
The press release mentioned above also included statements from numerous parents of current students, many of whom are immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries. Miyares reminded during the press briefing how he himself is the son of an immigrant, and how important the opportunities that TJ provides can be for immigrant families, calling the school "that doorway to the American dream."
Harry Jackson, the first Black student from Lancaster, PA, to go to the U.S. Naval Academy and the father of a junior at TJ, also called out the school administrators by name, calling the "actions of Principal Ann Bontitatibus and Director of Student Services Brian Kosatka... unconscionable."
"By withholding National Merit awards, they have stolen the students’ current opportunities and future possibilities. The silence of the Fairfax County School Board is inexcusable, but it screams volumes about how they and the administrators put ideology and self-promotion over the best interests of students they have sworn to protect," he went on to say. "The Governor’s letter urging AG Miyares to initiate an investigation marks an important day for not just the Save Merit parent movement, but for all people who believe in the importance of Civil Rights protections. Our Governor and his administration will not stand for violations of the Civil Rights of any group. They are committed to protecting our students and standing up for Parental Rights."
He also thanked Youngkin, Miyares, and Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, who called for the investigation.
In addition to the press release, a letter from Youngkin, and the press briefing from Miyrares highlighting how this has been a pattern from such Northern Virginia districts, one parent shared how there has been backlash against them for speaking out. "For the past few days, all of us have been relentlessly vilified on social media for advocating for our children and for daring to demand an investigation," Norma Margulies, an immigrant from Peru and the mother of a junior at TJ pointed out in her statement. "It is good to know that our Governor has our backs!"
The high school has been ranked as one of the best, if not the best, in the country, though it has been also rocked by legal battles and claims of discrimination against Asian-American students. The school had done away with merit-based admissions, supposedly in the name of equity, just as was the case with hiding the merit scholarships.
Miyares later announced during that same press briefing that it is also to do with "the change the Thomas Jefferson admissions policy that has undermined the excellence in favor of a system engineered to achieve the school's system of preferred balances on the races, rather than actual racial equality."
The attorney general emphasized that "the controversial admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson, which have significantly decreased the amount of Asian-American students in recent years, is another example of students being treated differently because of their ethnic--their ethnicity and race."
Miyares spent some time strongly condemning such bigotry, declaring that "every American, every Virginian, should be outraged that a child in Virginia today is being denied their dreams because of their racial background, period." He also reminded that he has said better, sticking by such a remark, that "I have said before in America, about the only state-sanctioned form of bigotry, is anti-Asian bigotry, and it is wrong, and we're gonna hold folks accountable."
In announcing the additional investigation, Miyares made clear his point that "using race, national origin, or any other protected class under Virginia's Human Rights Act as a factor to determine admission into one of our top high schools, is wrong and is unjust. Racism and race-based decision making in any form is wrong, it is against who we are, it is against who we are as a people, and who we are as a nation."
The district is using different excuses now, as evidenced by an email statement provided to local news outlet 7News:
“We are aware of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s comments today and we share his desire to get to the facts surrounding the delay in notification of National Merit Commendations at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for 2022. Indeed, we have initiated a third-party, independent investigation into this matter. Our preliminary understanding is that the delay this fall was a unique situation due to human error. The investigation will continue to examine our records in further detail and we will share key findings with our community. In addition, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid is meeting with families this evening to listen to their concerns. Should the Virginia Attorney General’s office initiate an investigation, FCPS stands ready to work with our partners at the state level.
As a reminder, once this error was brought to light, school staff reached out to colleges to update records where commended scholars had applied.”
The merit award can help with the college application and scholarship process, as Miyares highlighted, pointing out "how you're going to pay for college can be as stressful as wondering how you're going to get in." As has been alleged at TJ, students were not informed of their status until the deadlines had passed to include their award status in their applications.
Ying Julia McCaskill, an immigrant from China and the mother of a senior and sophomore at TJ, called the idea of equity right out in her statement.
"We need to see our students as individuals, because every one of them is special. They have their special talents. School needs to provide a platform of equal opportunity for them to thrive and when they have achievements, school needs to congratulate them and encourage more achievements," she began her statement by saying. "Fair competitions create strong and independent children, and these children will grow into critical thinkers, and they are our future! All these are the opposite of what equity is trying to accomplish. Equity is about equal outcome, the only way to get equity is to lower the standard and bring everyone down. That's why equity should be thrown into the trash. Equal opportunity instead of equal outcome."
Miyares made clear in his press briefing that these are separate investigations. Both withholding the merit scholarship and the admissions policy investigations will come from the Office of Civil Rights to do with the Virginia Human Rights Act.