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Virginia attorney general expands school civil rights probe

Schools in Fairfax County are accused of withholding notification of merit awards as students were applying to college.

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — Virginia's attorney general is broadening an investigation into whether the state's largest school system violated the civil rights of minority students by delaying award notifications.

Last week, Attorney General Jason Miyares announced a probe to examine why an honors designation determined by PSAT scores was allegedly withheld from students at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria until after some early college deadlines had passed.

Some of the parents who complained about the notification delay allege racial bias, as students of color make up most of the Thomas Jefferson enrollment. According to the school system, 65% of students are Asian American, nearly 20% are white, 4% are African American and 6% are Hispanic.

On Monday, Miyares' office announced the investigation is expanding to the entire Fairfax County Public Schools system "in light of reports and complaints that multiple schools across the county withheld awards from high achieving students."

This alleged behavior "may constitute unlawful discrimination in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act." Miyares wrote in a letter to Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid. "My office will investigate whether any students' rights were violated as a consequence of alleged withholding of National Merit recognition by high school administrators or FCPS."

Aside from Thomas Jefferson, Miyares asserted in his letter that two other Fairfax County high schools – Langley High School and Westfield High School – may have withheld National Merit Scholarship Corporation recognition from students.

According to the letter, the Virginia Human Rights Act makes it "an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, including the . . . superintendent, agent, or employee of any place of public accommodation, to refuse, withhold from, or deny any individual … any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges made available in any place of public accommodation, or to segregate or discriminate against any such person in the use thereof, … on the basis of race, color, [or] national origin."

Miyares ordered system officials to preserve "all relevant documents and suspend any automatic deletion policies applicable to relevant documents or custodians."

The school system was made aware in December that there was a delay in sharing National Merit recognition with Thomas Jefferson students who were given the "commended" designation, according to a system news release.

"After learning of this delay, impacted students and their families were notified, and staff sent emails and made follow-up calls to colleges where these students had applied to inform them of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation commendations," the school system said.

On Monday, Fairfax County Public Schools released a letter from Reid noting the delay at two other schools.

"We are sincerely sorry for this error," the letter states. "Each and every student, their experience and success, remain our priority. As we continue our division-wide review into these matters, we remain committed to being transparent with the key findings and sharing updates as appropriate to ensure each and every FCPS student is supported and recognized for the excellence they demonstrate."

During a press conference last week, Miyares said his office would also investigate a long-running dispute over the admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson. The policy, which eliminated standardized testing as a requirement for admission, grew from the school system's attempt to diversify its student body.

Thomas Jefferson is the nation's top-ranked high school with a history of producing students who move on to elite colleges.

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