Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is calling for legislation that would prohibit schools from withholding critical student merit awards “in the name of ‘equity,'” he said in a release Wednesday.
Youngkin said the proposed legislation “will ensure that merit and accolades are celebrated in the commonwealth.”
“Parents are rightfully upset and they should be,” Youngkin said. “We will not allow our students and their parents to be left uninformed of their hard-earned recognition.”
Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) have been tapped by Youngkin to sponsor the legislation that would undo these inconsistencies between school-issued awards, many of which may deal a critical blow to students seeking scholarships from top universities.
“Students who work hard and achieve the highest levels of academic excellence deserve both the recognition they are entitled to as well as the opportunities that these awards afford them when applying for college,” Freitas said. “This bill will ensure that students in Virginia will never be denied this recognition, because a few misguided administrators put their ideological agenda before the best interests of these hard-working students.”
Youngkin’s call for the legislation comes amid a tumultuous month for Northern Virginia school systems, during which time Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares launched two separate investigations into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where more than 200 students received late notices in 2022 of a National Merit Scholarship competition that “commended student” achievement.
Miyares subsequently expanded the civil rights investigation at TJHSST to all Fairfax County Public Schools after numerous parents of Langley and Westfield high school students received late notices of their children’s awards.
In a January 9 letter to FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid, Miyares called it “concerning that multiple schools throughout Fairfax County withheld merit awards from students. … This alleged behavior may constitute unlawful discrimination in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.”
The number of schools that withheld awards has only grown since, and now includes schools in Prince William County.
At TJHSST, a nationally prestigious school once led by a predominantly Asian American student body, the dearth of communication has prompted accusations of racial discrimination from parents who say the school has become more interested in fostering an environment of diversity than one of academic merit.
Current TJHSST parent and lawyer Shawnna Yashar, whose son was among the affected students, told journalist and activist Asra Nomani that school administrators told her the award delays stemmed from two school officials who “didn’t want to ‘hurt’ the feelings of students who didn’t get the award.”
Nomani’s December report, the genesis of the now-regional merit scandal, revealed a five-year pattern under the guidance of TJHSST principal Ann Bonitatibus in which at least 1,200 students were impacted by award delays.
In a statement addressing the initial report, officials from Fairfax County Public Schools attributed the mishaps to “a unique situation due to human error.”
Parents, however, have been less keen to believe school administrators.
“Keeping these certificates from students is theft by the state,” Yashar told Nomani.
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