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Virginia governor calls for investigation into Fairfax County high school over award controversy

“We need to get to the bottom of what appears to be an egregious, deliberate attempt to disadvantage high-performing students," Gov. Youngkin said.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is urging the state's attorney general to investigate allegations that information about National Merit Awards was withheld from students at a Fairfax County high school until after important college deadlines.

Parents of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology held a rally Tuesday to demand the termination of Principal Ann Bonitatibus and Director of Services Brandon Kosatka. They accuse school leadership of deliberately withholding commendations from the National Merit School Corporation after important deadlines for college scholarships had passed.

Ahead of the "Save Merit" rally and a meeting with FCPS superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid, the governor called for action to be taken to fully understand the accusations.

“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,” Gov. Youngkin said. “Parents and students deserve answers and Attorney General Miyares will initiate a full investigation. 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.”

In a letter to Virginia's Attorney General Jason Miyares, the governor expressed that he was stunned by the news reports and believes that guardians, along with students, deserve transparency when it comes to student achievements. 

A spokesperson for Miyares said, "The Attorney General has received the letter 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."

Dr. Reid also announced a third-party investigation into the school before she addressed questions and concerns from parents and students. 

The district said it shares the same desire as Youngkin to get the facts surrounding the delay in notification. 

It is clear the school failed to properly inform dozens of kids who were named "Commended Students" by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation this Fall. The recognition could help boost a college application and open up special scholarship opportunities but do not continue in the competition for National Merit Scholarship, according to the organization

On the other hand, students who qualified as semifinalists for the scholarship program receive scholarship application materials provided by NMSC. The district announced the semifinalists in September. 

"Our preliminary understanding is that the delay this fall was a unique situation due to human error," a statement from a spokesperson said. "The investigation will continue to examine our records in further detail and we will share key findings with our community."

Not everyone who attended the meeting had children affected by the delay or even had students attending the school. The issue ignited a backlash that garnered national attention. 

Parents allege the lack of notification has been happening for years, alluding that administrators did so to prevent hurting other children's feelings. Reid said the accusations are under review.

"We happen to think it's part of a larger issue which is de-emphasizing top performing students at TJ in the interest of equity, which is concerning," Glenn Miller, whose child graduated from TJ last year, told WUSA9.

The superintendent also did not elaborate if the principal of the school is on administrative leave pending an investigation. 

She acknowledged across all schools in the county, how these types of awards are informed is inconsistent. Reid has instructed her staff to come up with a more cohesive plan. 

However, there are students and parents such as Kate Carey who feel the controversy is overblown. They acknowledge that recognition is good, but stressed students are focused on other goals.

"This just wasn't really on anyone's radar before which is why so many of us didn't understand the issue," Carey told WUSA9. "I know it wasn't a big deal for me when my son was a National Merit semifinalist because it was just a test that he took and he got so many things going on."

"I think it's important to be recognizing students but for many students here, they're much more excited about what they're doing in their classes," former student Liana Keesing added. "There's a lot of comments flying around and not a lot of facts and knowledge right now, so I urge general caution."

Watch Next: Virginia Gov. Youngkin calls for SROs in every school in the state

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