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Fairfax County school system faces second lawsuit over changes to Thomas Jefferson admissions

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria about a lawsuit over the admissions changes at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox speaks at a news conference Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria about a lawsuit over the admissions changes at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Matthew Barakat/AP)
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Fairfax County Public Schools is facing a second lawsuit over changes officials made last year to the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, its flagship STEM magnet school.

The suit, filed in federal court Wednesday, alleges the changes are discriminatory against Asian Americans and therefore violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Some of the plaintiffs are also part of the initial lawsuit.

Thomas Jefferson High, known as TJ, often ranks as the best public high school in the nation — but is also nationally known for struggling to admit Black and Hispanic students, who have comprised single-digit percentages of the student body for decades. By contrast, Asian American students made up 70 percent of the student body in 2019-2020, although Asian families accounted for 30 percent of Fairfax County’s population in 2019.

Spurred in part by the national reckoning with systemic racism that followed George Floyd’s killing last summer, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand spent months workshopping changes to the admissions process in a bid to boost diversity. In the fall, the school board agreed to nix a long-standing, rigorous admissions test, as well as a $100 application fee.

Fairfax families sue over changes to Thomas Jefferson High’s admissions

About a month later, 17 families — many of them Asian American — filed suit alleging that the removal of the test was illegal under Virginia law and had inflicted “irreparable” harm on their children, some of whom are TJ hopefuls.

In late December, the board approved a “holistic review” process that invites qualified eighth-graders — those with a grade-point average of at least 3.5 and enrolled in various honors courses — to apply by completing an essay and a “Student Portrait Sheet.” The new system requires Fairfax evaluators to take into account factors such as students’ socioeconomic status, whether children have disabilities and whether they come from households that do not speak English.

That overhaul is the focus of the new lawsuit. It was filed by members of the Coalition of TJ, a group formed by parents and school alumni last year to fight the proposed admissions changes. The group is being represented free of charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based conservative legal group that has been sharply critical of affirmative action.

The 25-page suit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against Brabrand and the Fairfax school board, charges that the revisions to TJ’s admissions process were specifically meant to drive down the number of Asian American students enrolled at the school and cites presentations and comments made by the superintendent and school board members to try to prove that point.

It also includes a data analysis conducted by coalition members forecasting that Asian American enrollment will drop to 31 percent in the Class of 2025, the first to go through the new admissions process.

“In all my decades of life in America, I have never felt so much under siege,” TJ parent Asra Nomani, a plaintiff, said at a news conference Wednesday. “What we face today is emblematic of a national injustice happening against Asian American parents and students” — referencing a recent spike in anti-Asian hate across America.

In response to the suit, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools said Wednesday that the superintendent and the school board remain dedicated to ensuring that every student has the opportunity to realize their full potential.

“It is in that vein that the Board fervently supported removing the historical barriers and inequities faced by students from culturally and ethnically diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, while still ensuring that TJ maintains its high academic standards,” Lucy Caldwell said in a statement.

One of the few Black students at TJ is leading the push to diversify the student body

The suit seeks a “permanent injunction” that would prevent the Fairfax school system from enforcing the admissions changes, as well as a court order requiring it to revert to the process in place last fall.

The controversy over changes at TJ is part of a burgeoning debate nationwide. Spurred in part by the pandemic, selective K-12 schools from San Francisco to Boston have begun pondering how to improve diversity. Many, like TJ, are dropping admissions tests — and many are facing similar allegations that their actions are unfairly targeting Asian American students.

Schools, caught by pandemic and confronting systemic racism, jettison testing for admissions

In the realm of higher education, Harvard is facing a high-profile suit that alleges its admissions system — which takes race into account — discriminates against Asian Americans. The group leading that suit, Students for Fair Admissions, in February petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

At the Wednesday news conference, Harry Jackson, who is Black and father to one of six Black students in TJ’s freshman class this year, called himself an “active supporter” of the suit even though he is not a plaintiff. He said the admissions changes were blatant “bigotry and racism” — efforts that made him feel as though he were living in the 1950s South, he said.

“They’re not doing anything to uplift the Black and Hispanic communities,” Jackson said of the school board. “They’re just bringing down the Asian community.”

Meanwhile, the earlier suit filed by coalition members is making its way through the courts. In early February, a judge refused to issue an injunction barring the Fairfax school system from enforcing its TJ admissions changes, but allowed the lawsuit itself to go forward.