(Updated at 10:40 a.m.) The Virginia Attorney General’s office has launched an investigation into Fairfax County Public Schools, alleging that delays in notifying students of commendations for their preliminary SAT test scores may constitute civil rights violations.
Attorney General Jason Miyares announced yesterday that the entire school system will be subject to a review that began last week with a focus on Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ).
The expansion comes after principals at Westfield and Langley high schools reportedly informed families over the weekend that they also didn’t notify students designated as “commended students” by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) this fall.
“It’s concerning that multiple schools throughout Fairfax County withheld merit awards from students,” Miyares said in a press release. “My office will investigate the entire Fairfax County Public Schools system to find out if any students were discriminated against and if their rights were violated.”
In a letter to FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid, Miyares said his office is investigating whether the school system violated the Virginia Human Rights Act’s prohibitions of discrimination based on race, color and national origin.
Reid said she “proactively” alerted the attorney general’s office to the lack of “timely notification” for Westfield and Langley students after it was found by an independent review that the school system initiated last week, according to a message sent to the community yesterday.
“As soon as this new development was confirmed, Westfield and Langley high schools notified all impacted families and their broader respective school communities,” Reid wrote. “Please be aware that FCPS is committed to sharing information that impacts our communities as soon as possible.”
Reid said school staff have been contacting colleges where the affected students applied.
“We are sincerely sorry for this error. Each and every student, their experience and success, remain our priority,” she said.
Initially, the delay at TJ appeared to be “a unique situation due to human error,” Reid said on Wednesday (Jan. 4).
She said then that the attorney general’s investigation will include “a review” of TJ’s admissions policies, which were revised in 2020 in an effort to diversify the magnet school’s student body. A lawsuit arguing that the changes discriminate against Asian students is currently in a federal appeals court.
Notably, the delayed notifications for commended students at TJ were first reported by Asra Nomani, co-founder of the Coalition for TJ, which filed the lawsuit opposing the admissions changes.
The National Merit Scholarship Program recognizes the top 50,000 scorers on the pSAT, a practice standardized test often considered by colleges. Though only a handful of actual scholarships are awarded each year, about 34,000 students get letters of commendations that go out in late September, per the website.
FCPS announced in mid-September that 238 of its students had advanced to the semi-finals. It didn’t mention how many students were commended.
In letters to the Washington Post, local public education advocate Holly Hazard and a former university admissions director argued that Miyares and Gov. Glenn Youngkin — both Republicans — have “wildly overreacted” to the delayed notices, a sentiment echoed by a couple Democratic elected officials.
Amen 👇👇👇👇👇👇👇👇 https://t.co/0anrFR1Gev
— Senator Scott Surovell (@ssurovell) January 5, 2023
“There is nothing to investigate,” state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36) told FFXnow, noting that information about pSAT scores is available online through the College Board website.
“Fairfax County has the best public schools in Virginia and the Governor and Attorney General are trying to bring their culture war to Fairfax because they’re not willing to invest in public schools or treat our teachers like licensed professionals,” he said in an emailed statement.
The investigation precedes a General Assembly session convening Wednesday (Jan. 11) that will see consideration of a voucher program allowing public funds to be used for private school expenses, among other education-related proposals.
It also kicks off a year where all 12 seats on the Fairfax County School Board — currently held entirely by Democrats — will be up for election.
The parents of 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, the McLean resident killed by U.S. Park Police in 2017, and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano have voiced their dismay over Virginia’s decision to drop a criminal case against the officers.
At the behest of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, the Commonwealth filed a motion on Friday (April 22) to drop the manslaughter charges against the officers. A federal appeals court officially dismissed the case yesterday (Monday).
“I remain saddened and dumbfounded,” Descano said yesterday (Monday) in a statement. “Not only did they lose their beloved son, but time and again, actors in the criminal justice system treated them with appalling coldness and brutality.”
Three former U.S. attorneys general — William Barr, Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, all Republicans — weighed in on the criminal case with an amicus brief a day before the Commonwealth’s motion.
Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, had filed an appeal of the criminal case in January to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. He lost his bid for reelection in November.
Descano, also a Democrat, sought to bring criminal charges against the Park Police officers, identified as Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard. A grand jury indicted the men in October 2020 on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
But a year later, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton ruled in favor of the Park Police officers, dismissing the case.
Descano said he’ll now turn his attention to advocating for the Department of Justice to prosecute the case. The DOJ previously declined to pursue charges against the officers in 2019, but the department indicated last summer that it would be open to assisting in a prosecution.
If federal prosecutors pass on the case again, it would allow for the resumption of a civil lawsuit that James and Kelara Ghaisar, Bijan’s parents, filed against the U.S. government. The lawsuit has been on hold since October 2020.
Efforts by the family, community members, and elected officials to hold the Park Police officers accountable for Bijan Ghaisar’s death have now dragged on for more than four years after he was shot at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue.
U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine said in a joint statement yesterday (Monday) that their “hearts go out to Bijan Ghaisar’s loved ones, who have spent more than four years searching for closure following the fatal shooting of Bijan by two U.S. Park Police officers. We are deeply disappointed by this decision by Attorney General Miyares to end Virginia’s pursuit of justice for Bijan and his family. This decision only stands to cause further harm to the Fairfax County community while preventing a heartbroken family from reaching the closure they desperately need.”
At a federal court hearing in October 2020, an attorney for the family argued that they had been waiting for years and a case shouldn’t be paused indefinitely.
“Almost three years ago Bijan Ghaisar was gunned down by two Park Police officers,” attorney Tom Connolly said at the October 2020 hearing. “His family has waited now three years to get some semblance of justice in this case.”
Hilton agreed and set a status conference for the civil case for March 26, 2021. But three days before that date, the court said the meeting was put on hold with a rescheduling “to be determined.”
The wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, seeks $25 million and other damages and costs, alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other charges.