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The new year brought new problems for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va. when Gov. Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares to launch an investigation into possible human rights violations at the Virginia high school in early January. Parents have accused the school’s administration of intentionally failing to notify over 200 students who received recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation — allegedly due to “woke” ideology among leadership. These accusations are part of a larger push by conservatives to portray our public schools as anti-achievement and anti-merit. In an unsurprising turn of events, Youngkin has used the moment to weaponize the attorney general’s office for his own political gain — painting himself as a hypocrite and further undermining the efforts of our educators.
Last semester saw, of course, a significant moment for the Honor Committee. The student body voted for a major reform to the University’s Honor system, reducing the single sanction to a two-semester leave of absence. Of the more than 6,000 students who voted on the referendum, over 80 percent were in favor of the change. Despite this, it would not be fair to say that the proposal didn’t have its critics. A fringe alumni group known as the Jefferson Council has spent the last year arguing for the Honor system’s unaltered preservation. Our governor has opted to give the group’s president and Class of 1975 alumnus Bert Ellis a seat on the Board of Visitors, the University’s highest governing body. Ellis has consistently denigrated the recent attempts at progress the Committee has made. Even worse is that — in the face of direct attacks from this influential individual — the Committee has remained totally silent, failing to stand up for itself or the student body that is guiding its decisions. Given the Committee’s continuous contributions to institutional inequalities, this silence is especially harmful to students who are disproportionately affected by the Committee’s shortcomings.
A few weeks back, the Honor Committee announced that it would host a constitutional convention to create a multi-sanction system. Delegates sent from CIOs across Grounds would work towards the creation of a constitution that can be voted on by the student body in the upcoming spring elections. While the Committee was set to host the event starting Oct. 17, the chair of the Committee recently decided to push back the convention after hearing concerns about a lack of graduate student representation and whether the group was sufficiently prepared. This convention is good news — however, I urge those involved to use this additional time to reflect on how our racist history contributes to present-day biases. The Committee and the delegates must recognize that honor at the University cannot exist without institutional change. Any constitution put forth by the Committee must allocate resources to help dismantle systemic inequities endemic to the functioning of the University as a whole, in addition to addressing the internal issues facing the Committee.
Governor Glenn Youngkin signed into law SB 656 a few months back. The legislation requires Virginia teachers to identify “sexually explicit” content within their curriculums and mandates that principals notify parents about the explicit content, prior to their classroom introduction. In accordance with the law, the Virginia Department of Education released its model guidelines for sexually explicit instruction this past month, and its language has raised serious concerns. By referencing an obviously outdated section of Virginia code, the new law creates the potential for all content mentioning same-sex relationships — in all grade levels — to require parental approval, effectively robbing Virginia students of the diverse and inclusive education to which they are entitled.
The University’s Honor Committee is no stranger to controversy. Over the past few decades, the single sanction has been the subject of much debate, and just last fall the Committee faced damning allegations of misconduct. Honor has at times looked out of touch, out of place and anything but beneficial to our collective wellbeing — the previous Committee even regularly failed to meet quorum. In March, I wrote an opinion piece highlighting the recent historic vote that reduced the penalty for an Honor conviction from permanent expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence. While, in that piece, I remained generally optimistic about what the vote signaled for the future of our Honor Committee, I write today genuinely concerned about the direction the current Committee is heading in.
Two weeks ago, students at the University made the resounding decision to restructure the antiquated single sanction the Honor Committee has used since its inception. With unusually high turnout, the resolution to reduce the penalty for committing an Honor infraction from permanent expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence passed with more than 80 percent of the vote. Where students stand is clear.