Probe: Delays in district's schools awards not deliberate

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A third-party investigation into delays by a northern Virginia public school district in recognizing student achievements on a standardized test found no evidence the delays were deliberate, the superintendent said this week.

Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid also said in a Wednesday letter to the community that the probe found “no evidence of any inequity or racial bias” in the way schools handled notification to those designated “commended students” by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.

Fairfax County was among a handful of northern Virginia public school districts that acknowledged around the start of the year delayed notification of some commended student awards. The issue drew widespread attention after Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other elected officials highlighted parents' concerns and asked for an investigation.

Students who receive the award finish in the top 3% nationally on a standardized test, but below the top 1% that qualifies them as a scholarship semifinalist. Some parents said the delayed notifications could have affected students' college or scholarship applications, and other parents and activists alleged the district chose to withhold the commendations to downplay individual achievement in favor of equity.

When complaints about the delayed notifications first emerged at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, Youngkin said he wanted to get to the bottom of what “appeared to be an egregious, deliberate attempt to disadvantage high-performing students at one of the best schools in the country.”

Fairfax County went on to acknowledge notification delays at additional schools, as did other northern Virginia districts.

Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares, a fellow Republican, to launch an investigation. He suggested the failure to notify students of their awards could be a violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination on race and other factors.

That investigation is still ongoing, according to Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita.

“It’s encouraging that FCPS is working to be more transparent about the inconsistencies surrounding their National Merit award decisions and process,” she said in a statement Thursday.

An internal review by Fairfax schools first found there was no validity to claims that the delays were deliberate or done in the name of equity, according to a summary of the key findings of the external investigation. But Reid went on to retain the law firm Sands Anderson to conduct its own probe, which came to the same finding.

As part of its work, the firm conducted 29 witness interviews and “had open access to FCPS documents and records,” the summary said.

The report found that 15 Fairfax County high schools notified their commended students before Nov. 1, 2022; eight did not. The lack of a division-wide policy for providing such notice was a contributing factor in the delays, the summary said.

Reid said in her letter that the district has developed a new regulation that outlines the notification process all high schools will now follow going forward.

The investigation did not identify any Thomas Jefferson student or parent “who believed a student’s admission to their college or university of choice was adversely affected” by the delayed notices, according to the summary.

It also said staff at the impacted schools other than Thomas Jefferson reported that they had not received complaints from parents or the school community regarding the awards notification.

A spokeswoman for Youngkin, Macaulay Porter, said the governor looks forward to the independent findings of Miyares' investigation into three school divisions.

“When allegations that merit awards were withheld from students came to light, the governor took immediate action,” she said.

She also said the governor, who has made parental rights in education a key focus of his time in office, was disappointed in Virginia Democrats who blocked a legislative proposal he sought intended to ensure parental notification of scholastic awards.

Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, whose district includes part of Fairfax County, said the report's findings showed the whole episode was “hysteria drummed up by the same right-wing activists that have been trying to tear our public schools down" for years.

“Northern Virginia has excellent public schools on every objective metric. And the governor and his friends that don’t want that to be the case,” he said.