As TJHSST is Investigated, an Email from 2020 Reveals a ‘Pattern and Practice’ of Hiding Awards

by Asra Q. Nomani

This week, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares walked through the glass doors of the Korean Community Center off Little River Turnpike, the dome of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology visible through the window, and with him stood five parents of current and former students at TJ, as the school is known locally.

In a devastating announcement for Fairfax County Public Schools, Miyares announced twin civil rights investigations into, first, the withholding of National Merit Commended Student awards by TJ administrators and, second, a Fairfax County school admissions policy, put in place in December 2020, that a federal judge ruled discriminates illegally against Asian American students.

Miyares’ team will be seeking to identify a “pattern and practice” of discriminatory actions, a standard in civil rights cases. Currently, in defense of the school district, FCPS spokeswoman Julie Moult told reporters on Dec. 29, that withholding National Merit Commendation awards from students this year was a “one-time human error in the fall of 2022 only.”

“To suggest a deliberate intent to withhold this information would be inaccurate and contrary to the values of FCPS,” Moult continued. The district, she went on, values “hard work and dedication.”

“Fairfax County Public Schools also seems to value obfuscation and deception,” said Norma Margulies, the mother of a student at TJ, an immigrant from Peru, and one of the parents standing on stage with Miyares.

An email, obtained by Fairfax County Times, reveals that, indeed, in fall 2020, TJ staffers misled parents and students about the National Merit Commended Student award, presented to the top 3 percent of 1.5 million students who take the PSAT exam.

In the email, dated Nov. 24, 2020, at 11:53:25 a.m., a TJ staffer copied and pasted information about the Commended Student award into an email to a parent, who was asking about the award, incorrectly stating, “There is no letter and no formal announcement for Commended scholars and the list of Commended scholars is not made public.”

In fact, more than two entire months earlier, on Sept. 10, 2020, according to a National Merit Scholarship Corporation spokeswoman, the Illinois-based nonprofit sent a letter to TJ Principal Ann Bonitatibus notifying her the school had 230 National Merit Commended Students. Most of them were Asian- American. The school district typically releases the names of National Merit Semifinalists, who advance to compete to be National Merit Finalists.

The National Merit letter included a note with the explicit expectation that schools will inform students and parents, “Please present the letters of commendation as soon as possible since it is the students’ only notification.”

But Bonitatibus didn’t present the “letters of commendation” to students as “soon as possible,” and in fact the TJ staffer incorrectly stated that “there is no letter” of commendation. In other schools in the school district, counselors graciously notified students, but not at TJ. That September, 2020, administrators and school board members were instead directly targeting the school’s minority population of 70 percent Asian-American students, who supposedly “overrepresented” the 20 percent of Asian Americans who live in Fairfax County.

At a school board meeting on Sept. 15, 2020, just five days after National Merit sent Bonitatibus the list of Commended Students that wasn’t delivered to parents, Bonitatibus said “action does need to be taken” to “advance the representative demographics at our school.” She said she would go to “barber shops,” Hispanic street festivals and Special Olympics to recruit students to TJ.

“This is a smoking gun email. This illustrates a pattern and practice of discrimination against the school’s mostly Asian American students and families,” said Glenn Miller, the father of a TJ Class of 2022 graduate, after stepping off the stage with Miyares. In recent days, his wife, Helen Miller, and he have scoured their son’s academic folders but found no sign of the Commended Student certificate that their son earned in the fall of 2021. They have requested a copy of the certificate but not yet received it.

When the parent asked for the certificate, the TJ school staffer responded, “The certificates will be placed with diplomas for distribution in June.”

“Getting the certificates in their diplomas in June does zero for the scholarship hope of students and parents,” said Srilekha Palle, an immigrant from India and the mother of a daughter at TJ. “It shows that what they did this year was standard operating procedure.”

After the parent requested a scan, the TJ staffer finally provided a copy of the certificate. But the rest of the school’s other Commended Students didn’t receive copies. (I just learned my son was a National Merit Commended Student in 2020, but we didn’t learn about his award until the course of my reporting last month.)

The night before the Miyares press conference, parents walked through the glass front doors of TJ to walk into the library, angry about the mismanagement of the award by the principal and school administrators. There, new school Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid showed up to answer questions from parents, with school district legal counsel John Foster, assistant superintendent Fabio Zuluaga, Helen Lloyd, executive director, office of communication and community relations, and other executives. A parent pressed Reid and school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer about following through on a December 2020 board vote to hand over control of TJ to a regional governing board.

Bonitatibus did not show up for the meeting.


This is an excerpt of an article originally published in the Fairfax County Times and reposted with permission. The article in its entirety can be read here.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


9 responses to “As TJHSST is Investigated, an Email from 2020 Reveals a ‘Pattern and Practice’ of Hiding Awards”

  1. AlH - Deckplates Avatar
    AlH – Deckplates

    Our two children, graduating from TJ in the late 1990’s, had to deal with many problems to include curriculum and book selection. We wanted the best, they wanted compromise. We had no one to appeal to above the school board, who would listen. The story of our interaction with the school board is tough. Seemed like no oversight. Moreover, teachers who brought up issues were squelched. Over 20 years ago, this was happening.

    It is right for the Governor to investigate the actions of the principal, school board, and the country in their handing of school policies. I believe, the investigations will find other problems of abuse.

  2. Let’s call it like it is…… FCPS and TJ purposefully created a hidden cyber internment camp for the American children of Asian decent…to hurt them and ‘protect others’ in the memory of FDR, another liberal Democrat.

    But will those involved and responsible be held accountable and punished with being fired and/or sued?

  3. Bubba1855 Avatar

    sadly, if these lawsuits go forward to a jury trial in Fairfax County the plaintiffs will lose…the county is ‘too blue’ to convict.

  4. Bubba1855 Avatar

    One last thought…why doesn’t the National Merit group send letters to the students at their home address in addition to sending the letter to the schools?

  5. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The “investigation” isn’t what matters. The suits for financial damage will have more impact. These students suffered actual harm and should collect from Fairfax County taxpayers. The investigation can be brushed off as politics, but a judicial finding or jury verdict not so much.

    1. VaNavVet Avatar

      It is political theater by the Youngkin administration. The TJ principal stated that action does need to be taken to advance the representative demographics of our school. Do the Asian-American parents not want to join in a reasonable compromise to that end? If not why not?

      1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

        Does a reasonable compromise include decision making based on race or ethnic factors?

        The Division could allocate the limited seats at TJHSST by: 1) restoring the admissions tests; and 2) guaranteeing X seats per middle school. Or it could use a lottery from all those applicants getting a previously set score on the admissions test. But, as we know, FCPS eliminated the admissions test.

        Keep in mind that FCPS offers free test preparation to any student with an interest in attending TJ. Lower income students can receive similar prep that many parents pay for their kids.

        1. VaNavVet Avatar

          Those sound like a few reasonable approaches that Asian-American parents could get behind if they actually cared. Unfortunately the free test prep can not compare with years of paid tutoring on a wide range of test and study strategies. As I pay taxes in the county, I would like to see the matter settled with no more waste of taxpayer dollars.

  6. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    FCPS staff dominates the School Board by withholding information or, at times, altering it. FCPS staff, as an organization, is the most dishonest entity I’ve dealt with in my business and community careers.

Leave a Reply