This TJ alum helped defend the school in court. Now she’s defending DEI.

When April Hu heard that the admissions process at her alma mater was being legally challenged, she knew she wanted to help.

She had seen affirmative action being challenged at universities around the country, but this was different. The challenge wasn’t against her college, it was against Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a prestigious magnet school in Northern Virginia. And the case wasn’t challenging affirmative action — it was challenging a new “race-neutral” approach for admissions.

Hu, a lawyer, thought the new admissions policy was admirable, and deserved to stay in place. She and her colleague, Mica Moore, a fellow TJ alum and lifelong friend, started brainstorming how they could help defend the new policy.

“Most TJ people go off to do science; we went off to become lawyers,” Hu, who graduated in 2010, said. “We thought, ‘Surely there must be something that we can do to help.’”

They gathered a group of alumni and filed a brief in support of the Fairfax County school district in the case. Then they asked Donald B. Verrilli, a partner at their firm and a former Obama administration solicitor general, for help. Soon, the three lawyers and others from their firm were on the team as the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

In February, the legal team and school district celebrated a victory. Nearly three years after the legal challenge was first filed, the Supreme Court declined to take up the Thomas Jefferson case — allowing the new admissions process to stay in place.

Diversity advocates and admissions experts around the country were watching the case closely. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling last year outlawing “race-conscious” admissions for higher education, the TJ case posed a question about whether considering “race-neutral” factors like neighborhood and socioeconomics would be allowed as an alternative.

The decision in February was a victory for diversity advocates, offering something of a road map for public school districts and higher education institutions looking to diversify their programs without considering race.

But everyone — including Hu — has acknowledged that the fight is far from over. A wave of legal action against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the private and public sectors continues to surge across the country, leading diversity advocates to focus part of their work on defending DEI initiatives.

“TJ was the way that I first really got into it because of how close it was connected to me,” Hu said. “From studying that case deeply, and also from studying the [college admissions] cases deeply, I feel very strongly about trying to do the most that we can in this space.”

Most of Hu’s legal work is focused on antitrust law. But she’s also been focused on advising clients like corporations and nonprofits on how they can offer programs that promote diversity while staying within the confines of the law. She said it’s important that organizations understand that there is still room for these types of efforts.

“I worry constantly that people will find themselves in positions of overcorrecting and getting rid of initiatives that they don’t need to get rid of,” Hu said. “I think it would really be a shame if we lost programs like that, if we lost the ability to think thoughtfully about how we ensure a better, more equal society.”

Hu said she first found out about the TJ case when her parents both first-generation Chinese American immigrantstold her in 2021 that the Northern Virginia magnet high school was doing something “crazy” and capping Asian attendance. “This cannot possibly be true,” she thought to herself.

As Hu started researching the case, she quickly learned it wasn’t. In 2020, Fairfax County Public Schools overhauled the admissions process to introduce a more holistic approach, including eliminating a notoriously difficult admissions test and a $100 application fee. It also allocated a set number of seats for students from every middle school in the county to ensure admission of a wider subset of students.

Following the changes, the school admitted its most diverse class. At the same time, Asian American enrollment also dropped from about 70 percent to 50 percent. A parent group, Coalition for TJ, filed a lawsuit against the school district alleging that the new system was discriminating against Asian American applicants.

Joining the case was challenging for Hu, legally and personally. Legally, it was difficult to navigate a case where the main argument was challenging Supreme Court precedent, something Hu said she didn’t have much experience with in her seven years as a lawyer.

Personally, she felt like she put her parents, who are involved in the Chinese American community in Northern Virginia in a challenging position. Friends would come up to them and say, “Your daughter is working on this case, right? I thought that she supported us.” Hu says she felt that tension keenly while working on the case.

“Asian Americans are not a monolith,” Hu said. “I think this case really displayed that because you had a lot of Asian Americans who were part of the Coalition for TJ, but you also had a lot of Asian Americans on the other side who felt strongly that this policy was lawful, and that it was good, and that was benefiting Asian Americans.”

Hu was sitting in her D.C. office when the decision from the Supreme Court came down. She immediately texted Moore, who had since moved on to a new role in California.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” Hu said. “This policy gets to stay in place and the next generation of kids will be able to access TJ through a more equitable process.”

Verrilli said he was excited by Hu’s initiative to join the case. He said the decision from the high court was a big win, but recognized that the TJ case “is just the beginning of this fight.” Verrilli said he also plans to continue advising clients on how to maintain DEI programs and initiatives within the confines of the law.

“It would be extraordinarily disruptive for corporations and universities and nonprofits to be spending energies on defending lawsuits rather than carrying out missions,” Verrilli said. “And so I do think this is important work to settle these issues as fast as we can.”

For Hu, that means counseling clients and speaking at conferences to provide guidance about what the 2023 affirmative action ruling means for other programs. It’s using her knowledge from the TJ case to help organizations develop nuanced and meaningful policies that maintain a goal of creating more diverse environments.

It’s just a small portion of Hu’s overall workload, but it’s a piece that will always be close to home.

“I went to TJ, I experienced firsthand the wealth of resources the school had, I mean, we had a robotics lab, we had every AP class under the sun,” Hu said. “It just felt deeply wrong to me that we had a school with this tremendous amount of resources that felt so deeply inaccessible to so many other students in schools in the system. This admissions process, this revamping that the Fairfax County School Board thoughtfully undertook, was intended to correct for those discrepancies that Mica and I had felt even when we were kids.”

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