Thomas Jefferson High School scandal brings up concerns for WCHS students


Photo courtesy of Nick Minock (WJLA)

In response to the withholding of National Merit information, Fairfax County parents staged a protest. Parents are seeking accountability for the actions of Jefferson and other high schools across the county.

By Caroline Harless, Observations Editor

The National Merit Scholarship is an achievement many top-performing students strive for while taking the PSAT. Providing financial aid to attend college, National Merit can benefit students who may need help to bear the significant expenses. Imagine studying countless hours for the PSAT, achieving the National Merit Scholarship, only to find out weeks after the information was supposed to be released. This is precisely what happened to students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a school consistently considered one of the best high schools in the country.

After three Fairfax County high schools were found to have withheld National Merit Scholarship information, parents and students alike were outraged. Starting with the news that Thomas Jefferson High School had delayed information regarding the scholarship winners, two other Fairfax County high schools, Westfield High School and Langley High School, have been revealed to be experiencing the same situation. Now a vital question has arisen: How could this happen?

“I don’t know how a school, especially one with such a high reputation, could make such a huge mistake,” WCHS junior Alvia Naqvi said. “I think this situation puts a lot of students at a disadvantage. For the National Merit Scholarship, finalists have to write an essay, so not telling these students sooner deprived them of the time that they needed to write to the best of their ability. This can then impact whether or not students get scholarships and ultimately if they’ll be able to afford college.”

Before definitive answers were given, people had different opinions as to what caused the delay of National Merit information. Some thought Jefferson had done this to avoid making students who did not win scholarships feel bad. Others assumed it was an accident and they simply forgot to relay the information to students. 

“Jefferson’s withholding of information from students was wrong no matter the reason,” WCHS junior Eric Bomfim said. “I honestly think it’s pretty straightforward: students who specifically tested to get information about themselves deserve that information. At the end of the day, it’s more important to recognize the people that earned it rather than to feel bad for those who didn’t.”

However, with the recent involvement of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, motives are taking a different direction. Currently, the situation at all three high schools has become a civil rights investigation for “possible unlawful discrimination in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act,” according to Miyares.

“The involvement of the attorney general is definitely necessary as he is investigating the situation for discrimination,” Naqvi said. “Although we aren’t clear on their motives for delaying National Merit information, I think this could have racial implications. Considering the demographic of students at Jefferson, it’s possible that something like this could stem from racial discrimination.”

Besides withholding National Merit Scholarship information, Jefferson has also been accused of using affirmative action—policies which favor disadvantaged groups to prevent discrimination—in their admission process. With the elimination of standardized tests and the limit on the number of students admitted from each middle school, people have called for larger investigations and court involvement on discrimination against Asian Americans, a demographic that made up nearly 60% of the student body but has since decreased significantly due to these new practices.

“While I recognize the need to diversify high schools, I don’t think it’s fair that some populations get targeted,” Bomfim said. “These new methods of admission are supposedly trying to make it more fair, but in the end just devalue Asian Americans. Besides high school, this happens a lot in the college process and job applications; I don’t think it’s fair to hold up a veneer of social justice and use that as a justification to bring down other demographics.”

Affirmative action is nothing new, as it has been happening for decades across the country. Nonetheless, it is still a prominent issue that affects specific demographics of people, specifically Asian Americans, in application processes. 

“As an Asian American, I understand what it’s like to be undervalued for the same achievements as other people,” Naqvi said. “There have been a lot of different scandals in the past where students couldn’t get into top colleges, and I think seeing this happen to high schoolers, who I know and have interacted with, just really makes it clear that this is a reality for a lot of people.”

In a letter sent out on Jan. 4, Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid addressed the situation stating, “Our current understanding is that the delay at TJHSST this fall was a unique situation due to human error, but we will leave it to our investigative review to draw any final conclusion.” 

While Jefferson has attributed the situation to “human error,” the damage from delaying the information has already been done. Those who win National Merit Scholarships are recognized as “Commended Students,” which students from all three schools could not include on their college applications. As well as that, many students who could have significantly benefited from the scholarships now face financial dilemmas. 

“This whole situation hits very close to home for me because one of my good friends goes to Jefferson and they’ve been affected by this,” Bomfim said. “Not only are they Asian American, but their family is also less fortunate, and now their whole college experience is up in the air with whether they can afford to go or not. It’s really unfortunate.”

As the investigation continues, news about this situation has spread across the DMV, and with the news has come heavy concern. Many students and parents are now fearful that something like this could happen at their school. The effects at Jefferson, Westfield and Langley were drastic, so the thought that a delay of National Merit information, or worse, could happen again is worrying. 

“I’d hope something like this wouldn’t happen at WCHS, but if it can happen at Jefferson, it could happen anywhere,” Bomfim said. “At WCHS, there is a high Asian American population, and if anything like this were to happen, it would have a really big impact on the community.”