ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Virginia's Attorney General Jason Miyares announced Wednesday his office is launching two civil investigations into the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology after allegations of National Merit Awards being withheld from students.
The news comes after Virginia Gov. Youngkin sent out a letter to the state's attorney general expressing his concerns about the news reported, saying he believes parents, along with students, deserve transparency when it comes to student achievements.
On the same day, Tuesday, Jan. 3, a group of parents held a rally to demand the termination of Principal Ann Bonitatibus and Director of Services Brandon Kosatka. They accused the school administrators of deliberately withholding commendations from the National Merit School Corporation before college application deadlines.
In a press conference Wednesday, Miyares said he is the first child of an immigrant to be elected as Attorney General of Virginia. He said he resonated with families who came into the country seeking hope and opportunity, and that he was "heartbroken" when there was a delay in informing students in the fall that they qualified for national merit scholarship award. Parents argue the recognition could have helped students who already applied for college and open up limited scholarship opportunities.
Parents allege administrators withheld sending the certificate to prevent hurting other students' feelings.
"To the extent that withholding of 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," Miyares said. "That is why I am announcing today that my officer of civil rights is opening an investigation into this very issue."
Miyares noted if any law was broken that his office will "both protect and vindicate the civil rights of Thomas Jefferson students and their families."
Fairfax County Public Schools maintained this was a "unique situation due to human error." When the error was recognized, FCPS says school staff reached out to colleges to update records where commended scholars had applied. There is no specific evidence released that school officials intentionally kept this from students.
Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid announced a third party is conducting its own investigation. The district has since notified families and alerted colleges where the students applied about their commendations.
"The investigation will continue to examine our records in further detail and we will share key findings with our community," FCPS said in a statement before the press conference announcement. "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."
Among the parents who supported the decision was Shawnna Yashar, whose son received the recognition.
"I do feel like it was something more than a simple mistake," Yashar said. "I feel like there was something more to it than that."
Miyares also announced a second investigation in the controversial decision to change the admission policy at Thomas Jefferson High School to improve equity and increase diversity.
The school board overhauled the process in late 2020 to get rid of the standardized admissions test and application fee. Board members also approved raising the minimum GPA, expanding the freshman class from 480 to 550 and allocated them for the top 1.5% of applications from every middle school.
Opponents argued the change, which took effect in 2021, unfairly targeted Asian American students who have largely made up the school’s demographic by focusing on racial balance instead of merit.
FCPS said the admission process for the Class of 2025 saw more applications and students accepted from all middle schools and historically underrepresented schools. The makeup of the student demographic also changed with an increase in Black, Hispanic and white students. Asian students saw a decline per FCPS data.
- Black students increased from 1.23% (2020-21) to 7.09%
- Hispanic students increased from 3.29% (2020-21) to 11.27%
- White students increased from 17.70% (2020-21) to 22.36%
- Asian students continue to constitute a majority of the class at 54.36%, a decrease from 73.05% (2020-21)
In court, the school board insisted the decision is "race-neutral."
"I do understand we need to increase more people more students from different backgrounds, but we got to do it the right way," a TJ High School parent said.
In September, a U.S. appeals court heard oral arguments in the school board's appeal after a judge ruled the policy was discriminatory.