Parent vs. parent: A fight over admissions rockets from Zoom to Twitter to criminal court – Grid News
Parent vs. parent: A fight over admissions rockets from Zoom to Twitter to criminal court

A feud between a former PTA president and the leader of a high school alumni group became so heated that this spring, it landed in criminal court in Fairfax County, Virginia.

After several hearings, a Fairfax judge on April 8 dismissed the court case that alleged Harry Jackson — the former PTA president — had committed slander and libel when he accused alumni group leader Jorge Torrico of exhibiting “grooming” behavior during a PTA meeting.

“Harry Jackson and his people decided they needed to take me out — not physically but through character assassination,” Torrico told Grid. “There’s no way I can fully clear my name.”

The case was unusually ugly for Fairfax County, a suburban stretch south of Washington, D.C., where the median household income is $128,374, one of the highest in the country.

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But the spat between the two Fairfax dads didn’t spring from personal animus. The two men hadn’t ever met in person when they began fighting online. Initially, they were sparring over admissions to a local magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Their feud is an extreme case study in what happens when polarizing national issues come home. Over the last two years, parents at Thomas Jefferson High School have become deeply divided over a plan to change admissions at the school, originally on the merits of the debate. Over time, the dispute became far more political, inspiring activism that rocketed the saga onto Fox News.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear two cases challenging affirmative action at universities, the country may soon be mired in its own debate over what is fair in education. Schools and universities are rethinking how they admit students with an eye toward racial equity. But critics say school boards are going too far and creating de facto — or even, intentional — discrimination against high-scoring Asian students.

“You can’t get away with watching someone demonize and bully one minority group,” said Jackson. “That concerned me. I was disgusted by it. And it came out of left field.”

How a national fight became personal

Thomas Jefferson is not just any high school: It has repeatedly been named the No. 1 public school in the country by U.S. News and World Report. Some parents move to Fairfax County to give their kids a shot at getting in, hoping it will propel them to the Ivy League and lucrative careers in technology. Other parents bankroll thousands of dollars of test preparation, like summer math camps and private tutors, to help their kids on the school’s entrance exam.

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For decades, parents who couldn’t afford tutoring or didn’t know how to navigate the school system rarely saw their children get in. The school admitted nearly 500 students each year, but only a couple dozen of those students were Black or Hispanic. Less than 1 percent of students at the school received free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

“They’ve created a situation where if you have money and resources, you benefit, and if you don’t, mostly you won’t,” said Torrico, who is a parent to three kids in Fairfax County and graduated from Thomas Jefferson himself in 1998.

During the summer of 2020, Torrico and other alumni banded together to lobby the school board to change the admissions process. Through a group originally formed on Facebook called the Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group, they organized testimony for the school board and wrote letters to state legislators.

The Fairfax County School Board, which was already being prodded by the state to change admissions, soon responded to the alumni’s cries: The board announced a plan to overhaul admissions at Thomas Jefferson in September. It would go through multiple iterations of the new plan, but all of them got rid of the entrance exam and sought to admit more students from less-wealthy parts of the district — the same students who had been underrepresented at the school.

Hundreds of alumni like Torrico were jubilant. Others saw a disaster in the making.

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It’s not that these opponents of the school board did not agree that Thomas Jefferson should have more Black students — most wholeheartedly thought it should. But the school was already diverse, with students hailing from India, Vietnam and China. In fact, Asian students comprised around 70 percent of Thomas Jefferson’s student body.

Parents who cared deeply about the school quickly realized the changes could come at the expense of people like them.

Jackson, who is Black and has a daughter who is half-Asian, believed the admissions plan discriminated against Asian students. He joined a small-but-growing group of activists calling themselves Coalition for TJ and started sounding the alarm that something was amiss at Thomas Jefferson.

“It seemed like they were trying to whiten the school, the way they did it,” Jackson said.

Digital organizing to digital egg-throwing

For months, parents largely watched the debate over Thomas Jefferson play out from behind their computer screens as they logged in to Zoom school board meetings, chatted in parent Facebook groups and, eventually, read about their school in the press.


But in an instant, these online conversations could go from polite to rude in the extreme in a way in-person interactions rarely do.

Jackson frequently found himself on Twitter, tossing out facts about district enrollment and the admissions plan. But one day, a user who Jackson believed to be a local teacher told him off, saying Jackson was using a “victim narrative” and calling him a profane name.

“Sell segregationist bullshit elsewhere, snowflake,” the user added.

Sometimes students — who had a cordial debate over admissions among themselves — found themselves roped into the adults’ feuding, too.

Dinan Elsyad, a Black student who graduated in 2021, was testifying during an online meeting about her experiences when the chat section started to criticize her.

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“One of the parents in the chat said something to the effect of, if I can’t handle [Thomas Jefferson], it’s a ‘me’ problem and I should drop out and give my seat to someone who is capable of dealing,” Elsyad recalled. “Comments like that for the entirety of the night.”

A national debate goes local, then national again

As the debate escalated, the Coalition for TJ had one major advantage over the alumni group: a former Wall Street Journal reporter named Asra Nomani.

As a former journalist, Nomani was adept at tweeting, pitching stories to news outlets and speaking to the press. At rallies and events, she used her cellphone to shoot close-range videos of her opponents. Soon after she began opposing the school board, Nomani started invoking hot-button issues like critical race theory, warning that the school was succumbing to leftist fads.

“The [school district] roadshow to sell lottery instead of merit, as part of critical race theory in schools, destroying America’s No. 1 high school is about to begin,” Nomani tweeted as the school board debated the admissions change.

“What’s the issue for [Fairfax County Public Schools]? Too many Asians! And who are the largest number of Asians? Kids from India,” she continued in another tweet. “It’s discrimination based on national origin.”

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Nomani started writing about Thomas Jefferson on a Substack newsletter and in conservative outlets like Quillette.

Soon, other members of the Coalition for TJ started landing in the conservative spotlight, too: Jackson appeared on Fox News and was featured in the Wall Street Journal, which ran an op-ed headlined, “Virginia Dad Takes On the School Board.”

“On so many of the hot-button issues of the day — from mask mandates and lockdowns to critical race theory, transgender policy and racial preferences for admissions — the public schools have become the vanguard for today’s progressive agenda,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. “But parents such as Mr. Jackson aren’t taking it any more, and they show no sign of relenting.”

People who opposed the Coalition for TJ were flabbergasted as they saw a fight about their school rocket to national notoriety.

Seeing all the attention that was poured on opponents of the school board, some parents grew suspicious of the Coalition for TJ’s motives, calling members “Republican operatives” in private and surmising they were secretly coordinating with big-name GOP activists. On Facebook, one parent encouraged others to question Nomani: “Is she thinking of running for office?” the parent openly speculated.

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To date, none of the leaders of the Coalition for TJ have run for office. Nomani did take a leadership position at a new national anti-CRT group, Parents Defending Education, and Jackson is working with the group doing anti-CRT advocacy. Parents Defending Education has major ties to the anti-affirmative action movement: Incorporation documents filed in Virginia list Edward Blum, who leads the organization that brought the affirmative action case against Harvard University, as an officer.

Two parents go head-to-head

In the spring of 2021, Jackson ran for president of the school’s PTA — and, despite an unusual amount of opposition from parents on the other side of the admissions fight, he won. (Jackson’s tenure as PTA president was cut short. He resigned after a prolonged back-and-forth with the state PTA over whether his activism at the PTA was appropriate.)

A few months before he was elected president, a PTA call set Jackson on a collision course with Torrico.

Jackson and other parents from the Coalition for TJ say Torrico behaved inappropriately during the call by trying to establish direct contact with a student, including inviting him on a bike ride. (Torrico advocates for biking in his spare time.) Torrico maintains he had only talked with a student during the meeting about reaching out to underrepresented middle schools. Considering Torrico was an alumni and not a parent of students at the school, Jackson and others considered his actions inappropriate.

“After seeing you in action last night, I am not comfortable working with you in engaging children,” Jackson tweeted at Torrico the following day. “It was very disturbing seeing you exhibit ‘grooming’ behavior.”

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Another parent emailed the principal, according to documents later obtained via public records request and shared with Grid, saying that Torrico “should know better.”

“This is creepy behavior, at a minimum,” the parent wrote.

Jackson is not afraid to speak his mind: A former employee at the Department of Homeland Security, he went public several years ago with security concerns about a program at the department after his supervisors ignored his private complaints. Sharing his unease about Torrico was second nature, he said.

Torrico was upset, and he feared the accusations would undermine the work he was trying to do to get more Black and Hispanic students into Thomas Jefferson. He demanded an apology and, on one occasion, asked for reconciliation with Jackson. For months, the two went back and forth, usually on Twitter — until Torrico, worried about his reputation, decided to act.

He filed a police report in Fairfax County saying that Jackson was defaming him online. The commonwealth attorney agreed to take his case.

How Thomas Jefferson could change the future of affirmative action

In early 2021, the Coalition for TJ sued the Fairfax County School Board.

The suit alleged that the school district’s plans to change Thomas Jefferson’s admissions were unconstitutional because they discriminated against Asian students. Many of the plaintiffs were Asian parents with kids in elementary or middle school, who planned to apply to Thomas Jefferson when their children got older. The Coalition for TJ is represented in the lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian legal organization that spends more than $15 million a year and has a history of litigating affirmative action cases.

As the Supreme Court prepares to revisit affirmative action, the case filed by the Coalition for TJ could wind up having a national impact.

The court plans to take up two cases challenging affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina this year. If the court rules against the universities, they won’t be able to use race as a factor in their admissions, which the universities argue is crucial for giving opportunities to groups that have historically been underrepresented. The current court is more conservative than it was during other recent years when it upheld affirmative action policies, leading people to wonder if affirmative action will soon be banned.

This could have a big impact on schools in many parts of the country. In California, which banned affirmative action more than 20 years ago, eliminating race in admissions meant that Black and Latino students are underrepresented at state universities compared with their share of the population, while Asian students are overrepresented.

Thomas Jefferson’s admissions plan did not explicitly use race as a factor in admissions, instead using other measures such as what area students came from or whether they used free and reduced-price lunch at school.

The future of that plan is unclear. In the lawsuit filed by Coalition for TJ, District Court Judge Claude Hilton ruled in late February that Thomas Jefferson’s revised admissions policy amounted to illegal discrimination against Asian students. The district has appealed Hilton’s ruling — but if it were to stand, the implication is profound: If future court cases find that factors like a students’ family income can’t be used as part of admissions decisions, then proponents of affirmative action say schools and universities will admit fewer Black, Hispanic and low-income students.

The new admissions plan did change the racial makeup of Thomas Jefferson. After the new admissions standards went into effect last year, the number of Asian students at Thomas Jefferson dropped from roughly 70 percent to 54 percent. The number of white students at Thomas Jefferson increased from 18 to 22 percent. But so did the number of Black (from 1 to 7 percent) and Hispanic students (from 3 percent to 11 percent). The share of students from low-income families went from less than 1 percent to 25 percent. Thomas Jefferson was admitting the “most diverse class we’ve ever had,” the Fairfax County superintendent said.

Torrico’s case against Jackson was dismissed last week after Jackson retained a new attorney.

The attorney, Marina Medvin, works for a law firm called Rightdefense.org, which is sponsored by an organization called the Coolidge Reagan Foundation. Coolidge Reagan has its own ties to conservative power politics: On past tax filings, it listed its president as Dan Backer, a Republican election lawyer who has worked for pro-Trump PACs and successfully challenged campaign finance restrictions at the Supreme Court.

Medvin presented the case as an attempt by the government to squash free speech.

“We fought for my client’s constitutional rights and the representative constitutional rights of every other individual who might find themselves being criminally prosecuted for voicing an opinion or a concern,” Medvin said in a statement.

Torrico was troubled, not only by the unfavorable outcome but also the wave of local and conservative media that he was surprised to see cover the dismissal. A slew of online articles at sites like the Daily Wire and Fox News followed the decision.

Jackson was being taken to court after he had “opposed far-left activists’ quest to abolish the school’s admissions exam in the name of ‘equity,’” one article said. The commonwealth prosecutor who took Torrico’s case was “backed” by George Soros, said another. (Soros had funded a PAC that gave money to the prosecutor, Steve Descano, while he was running for the role of commonwealth attorney.)

A flood of angry tweets directed at Torrico followed the press coverage — this time from anonymous people online.

“These people have names and addresses. They won’t stop until they are forced to stop,” one user tweeted. “Asking nicely or voting won’t change anything.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Maggie Severns
    Maggie Severns

    Domestic Policy Reporter

    Maggie Severns is a policy reporter for Grid covering complex policy stories and major headlines.