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Virginia school district did not try to withhold students’ National Merit Scholarship recognition, officials say, citing independent report

<i>CNN</i><br/>Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Michelle Reid (top left) speaks at a meeting on Wednesday.
Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Michelle Reid (top left) speaks at a meeting on Wednesday.

By Rob Frehse and Travis Caldwell, CNN

An independent investigation shows the Fairfax County Public Schools system in Virginia did not intentionally refrain from notifying some high school students of their National Merit Scholarship recognition in a timely manner, the system superintendent announced Wednesday.

The school district asked a law firm in January to conduct the investigation over publicized allegations that school staff withheld some notifications to “avoid hurting the feelings of students” who did not receive recognition, according to a statement from the district.

The investigation found that out of 23 district high schools with students who received commendations in the National Merit Scholarship competition, eight notified the commended students after November 1, which is an early admission deadline for some colleges, the statement reads.

But the probe found “no evidence” of intentionally withholding commendation notifications or minimizing students’ achievements, or any suggestions that the delays came from racial considerations, the statement reads. The investigation also did not find evidence “suggesting that any later-than-usual notification impaired students’ academic, professional, or financial interests,” the statement reads.

The law firm’s investigation found that “logistical factors” varying from school to school were responsible for the delays, according to the district.

“This is not a school-specific concern at this point. Rather, this is a system concern around the policy and procedures that need to be in place to prevent this from happening again,” Superintendent Michelle Reid said about the probe at a public meeting Wednesday.

Students should have been notified in September as to whether they received commendations for the National Merit Scholarship program, an “academic competition for recognition and college undergraduate scholarships,” the program’s website says.

Of the approximately 1.5 million entries, some 34,000 of the top 50,000 students nationwide receive commendations recognizing their accomplishments — but this also means they did not reach the semifinalist level and are out of the competition for National Merit Scholarships, according to the program.

While the program informs semifinalists of their accomplishment directly, it does not do so for commended students — and relies on schools to relay the commendations instead, the Fairfax County district said.

Independent college counselors previously told CNN that such recognition would likely not tip an admissions decision from a top-tier college, but each school handles such awards differently.

Virginia will continue its own investigation, attorney general’s office says

Virginia’s attorney general had launched his own investigation of the district over the issue in January. The probe first focused on the district’s Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria on suspicion of unlawful discrimination, but later expanded to the entire district over reports that other schools withheld recognition.

Of the 459 seniors at Thomas Jefferson High School, 393 were either commended or semi-finalists, according to the Fairfax County Public Schools system.

The school also is being investigated for its admission policies, which commonwealth Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a January statement have significantly reduced the number of Asian American students in recent years.

Thomas Jefferson High School’s student population ethnicity is nearly 66% Asian, according to the school system.

Victoria LaCivita, spokeswoman for the attorney general, told CNN regarding the latest report: “It’s encouraging that FCPS is working to be more transparent about the inconsistencies surrounding their National Merit award decisions and process.”

The attorney general’s office will continue its investigation, she said.

One parent questioned Reid at Wednesday night’s meeting, claiming a racially disproportionate number of Asian students were not informed of the commendations.

“A summary of findings identified no discrimination on the basis of race at this point. … At this time the summary of key findings from the investigative review does not show disparate impact,” Reid told the parent.

School staff members have drafted a new regulation that will ensure students and parents get notified in a timely manner about the merit recognition, Reid said.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Gili Remen, Sara Smart, Athena Jones, Kirsten Appleton, Paul LeBlanc and Braden Walker contributed to this report.

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