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Virginia attorney general launches civil rights probe into elite high school

Parents complain that officials at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology delayed notifying some minority students of recognition that could help with college scholarships.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) — Virginia's attorney general on Wednesday launched a civil rights investigation into practices that some parents say discriminate against Asian American students at the nation's top-ranked high school. 

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, has been the focus of media coverage recently after the discovery that school officials withheld information about National Merit Scholarship honors from students until after some of the deadlines for college scholarships passed. Some parents took this to be part of a racial equity initiative.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, who likened the school's gates to the "pathway to the American dream" during a press conference Wednesday, said his office will also investigate a long-running dispute over the admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson.

"To the extent that withholding any of these 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," the Republican attorney general said. "That is why I am announcing my office of civil rights is launching an investigation into this very issue. If the law was broken, my office will protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jefferson's students and their families."

The Fairfax County School Board issued a carefully worded statement noting that it had also initiated an investigation into how the honors notification delay occurred.

“Our current understanding is that the delay at Thomas Jefferson High School this fall was a unique situation due to human error, but we will continue to examine our records in further detail," it said. "We are committed to sharing any key findings and any updates to our processes to ensure future consistency in appropriate and timely notification of National Merit Scholarship Corporation recognitions going forward.”

Asked about arguments that the recognition involved -- the commended student designation -- is not a significant factor in the college admissions process, Miyares pushed back.

"If it is not important, why do schools use this – the number of students that are National Merit award finalists – when they give their own recognition for their high school?" the attorney general responded.

Asra Nomani, a parent who attended Wednesday's press conference at the Korean Community Center in Alexandria, asserted that the designation opens doors for more financial aid money for her son, now a college student. She added, "It is a lie, literally, that the school district is putting forward that it was a one-time error."

Along with examining whether school officials withheld the information about honors designations from students, Miyares said Wednesday his office will probe whether the school’s admissions policies violate law.

The policy grew from the school system's attempt to diversify its student body.

In 2021, roughly 72% of the students at the school were of Asian descent, according to the school system. Another 18% were white, while just under 2% were Black and 3% were Hispanic. In Fairfax County, where the school is located, nearly 51% of residents are white, another 9% are African American, 19% are Asian, 16% are Hispanic and 4% identify as other.  

Parents of prospective Thomas Jefferson students in 2020 fought the school system’s attempt to eliminate standardized testing as a requirement for admission. A state judge in Fairfax County denied the parents’ request for an injunction.

A case involving the policy is also making its way through appeals in federal court. But that case involves federal law, Miyares noted.

"This is specifically state law and the Virginia Human Rights Act," he said.

After the school altered its admissions policy, 65% of students are Asian American, nearly 20% are white, 4% are African American and 6% are Hispanic.

Miyares said his office will investigate "the change in Thomas Jefferson's admissions policy that has undermined excellence in favor of a system engineered to achieve the school system's preferred balances of races rather than actual racial equality."

The attorney general appeared to take aim at policies similar to affirmative action.

"Using race, national origin or any other protected class under Virginia's Human Rights Act as a factor to determine admissions to our top high schools – it is unjust," he said. "Racism or race-based government decision-making in any form is wrong. And it is against who we are as a people and who we are as a nation."

In a statement Tuesday calling for the investigation, Virginia's Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin said parents and students deserve answers.

“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. "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.”

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