Indian Americans commend investigations into scandal on alleged withholding of National Merit Awards 

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Srilekha Palle of the American Hindu Coalition (second from right) while VA Attorney General Jason Miyares announced Civil Rights investigations against FCPS and TJHSST on January 4, 2023 at the Korean Community Center in Annandale, Virginia. PHOTO: https://twitter.com/JasonMiyaresVA/

The launch of investigations January 4, 2023, into Virginia’s developing scandal of some public and private schools withholding National Merit Awards from some students is gathering steam, more so now with Indian-Americans highlighting their concerns and commending top administrators for looking into it.

Indian-American youth are some of the most high-performing students in Virginia schools.

The whole controversy began when on January 3, VA Governor Glenn Youngkin in a letter to Virginia’s Attorney General Jason Miyares, said, “I am stunned by news reports alleging that information about National Merit Awards, as determined by student PSAT scores, was withheld from students at [TJHSST] until after important deadlines for college scholarships had passed… I urge you to use the authority conferred on you by the General Assembly to protect the civil rights of TJHSST students and parents.”

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The next day Jan. 4, Miyares launched two Civil Rights investigations against the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), for withholding of students National Merit awards, and TJHSST’s 2020 “controversial” admission policies. Since then, two other FCPS High Schools including Langley High School, and Westfield High School have now voluntarily admitted they withheld awards from their students as well, prompting a second letter from Miyares.

In his Jan. 4, notice of investigation to Superintendent of FCPS, Dr. Michelle Reid, and Principal of TJHSST, Ann Bonitatibus, AG Miyares said that it had come to his attention that FCPS and the TJHSST administration “may have engaged in unlawful discrimination in violation of Virginia Human Rights Act…” His office will investigate whether the withholding of commendations from students, and admissions policies by TJHSST administration violated the Act, the letter stated.

On Jan. 9, Miyares sent a second letter to Reid informing her that his office was expanding investigations into the FSPS School system.

“It’s concerning that multiple schools throughout Fairfax County withheld merit awards from students,” said Miyares. “My office will investigate the entire [FCPS] system to find out if any students were discriminated against and if their rights were violated.”

According to parents, the award notifications dated in September [2022] were only dispatched to more than 200 students by TJHSST on November 21, 2022, which is past the early application deadline. The deadline is crucial for students seeking admissions in elite universities and obtaining scholarships. They say notifications were delayed to “downplay individual achievement [of students] in favor of equity.”

From left, Srilekha Palle, Kristen Jackson, Cameron Ward, Suparna Dutta (member of VA Board of Education), Norma Margulies, Asra Nomani, and Harry Jackson protest in front of FCPS Headquarters on December 30, 2022 in Falls Church, Virginia. PHOTO: courtesy Asra Nomani

Expressing outrage at TJHSST, and other schools for knowingly withholding awards, Srilekha Palle, from American Hindu Coalition (AHC), who stood by AG Miyares as he announced the investigations on January 4, told News India Times, “Withholding awards from students and their families hinder the ability of students to benefit from much-needed scholarship funds as they apply for college admissions and potentially hurt their chances of making their college applications look more competitive.”

Palle, a mother of two children, said AHC has been rallying for equal opportunities of all students. According to her, TJHSST’s deliberate withholding of awards, and controversial admission policies to improve equity and diversity caused a drop in the percentage of Asian students admitted to TJHSST from 73.05 to 54.36 per cent.

Calling it “a unique situation due to human error,” in a message to FCPS students and their families on January4, Superintendent Reid, said, “Last month, we were made aware that there had been a delay in sharing National Merit Scholarship Corporation recognition with TJHSST students designated as Commended Students by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.”

According to Reid, FCPS has also written to all prospective colleges notifying them of the students’ awards, in addition to initiating an independent investigation. Now, Principals of Langley and Westfield High Schools have also sent messages to students and their families informing them about the delay, and that they have launched investigations.

“Like so many born in India, living in the diaspora, my family has loved the United States of America as a place of opportunity, equality, and meritocracy. For the last three years, my family and other families of descent from India have faced pernicious hostility, and discrimination, because we have dared to work hard toward realizing the American dream,” Asra Nomani, senior fellow, Independent Women’s Network told News India Times.

“We have been called white adjacent, even white supremacists, as education officials, politicians, and activists take aim on people from India, South Asia, and other parts of Asia, Nomani contended. “They try to erase us, suppress our achievements, and marginalize us—all because of their failures, uplifting children from other minority groups, including Blacks and Hispanics,” said Nomani whose son’s award was also withheld in Fall 2020 at TJHSST.

She said Gov. Youngkin, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, and AG Miyares listen to Indian-American and Asian families as they continue to face racial discrimination by FCPS. The administration is standing up for these communities.

“No student should be treated differently because of their race. Students at [TJHSST] are amongst the brightest in the nation, yet some have been punished in the name of ‘equity.’ Racism and race-based government decision making in any form is wrong and unlawful under Virginia’s Human Rights Act,” said Miyares on January 4.

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