Wall v. Fairfax County School Board
SUPREME COURT OF VIRGINIA
Record No. 951927
475 S.E.2d 803, 252 Va. 156
September 13, 1996
LUCAS E. WALL v. FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, ET AL.
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY. Gerald Bruce Lee,
Present: Carrico, C.J., Compton, Stephenson, Lacy, Keenan, and
Koontz, JJ., and Whiting, Senior Justice. Opinion BY Justice Roscoe
B. Stephenson, Jr.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stephenson
OPINION BY JUSTICE ROSCOE B. STEPHENSON, JR.
In this appeal, we decide whether The Virginia Freedom of
Information Act, Code sec. 2.1-340, et seq. (the Act), requires the
disclosure of the total number of votes received by each candidate
in a public high school student election.
On May 3, 1995, an election was conducted at Centreville High
School, a public school in Fairfax County. In the election, the
students were afforded the opportunity to elect class officers for
the classes graduating in 1996, 1997, and 1998. The students also
had the opportunity to elect the school's student representatives
to the Student Advisory Committee (SAC). The representatives, along
with the SAC representatives from the other Fairfax County high
schools, elect a student representative to the county school
Students who wished to vote were furnished a computer "Scantron"
sheet upon which they recorded their choices. Thereafter,
representatives of the school's Student Government Association
(SGA) collected the Scantron sheets and delivered them to Mary
Katherine Totten, a teacher and SGA advisor. Totten, with the
assistance of a class sponsor, then tabulated the election results,
and Totten retained the sheets and the tabulated results in her
Lucas Wall, a student at the time, was the Editor-in-Chief of
the Centreville Sentinel, the school's student newspaper. Prior to
the election, Wall made a request, pursuant to the Act, to be given
the vote totals received by each student candidate. The request was
delivered to Totten and Pamela Latt, the school's principal. In a
written response, Latt declined to release the vote totals to Wall.
She informed Wall, however, that each student candidate would have
access to his own vote total. Additionally, the total number of
students who voted in the election was available to the entire
In explaining her position, Latt stated that the individual vote
totals did not constitute "official records," as defined in the
Act. She further stated that, even if the totals were "official
records," they were also "scholastic records" and, thus, exempt
from disclosure under the Act. Latt also expressed concern that the
release of individual vote totals likely would embarrass and
humiliate those students who lost the election and discourage many
students from participating in the election process. Totten shared
Latt's views regarding the possible effect the release of
individual vote totals might have upon student participation.
Thereupon, Wall filed a petition for mandamus against the
Fairfax County School Board and Totten. Following an ore tenus
hearing, the trial court refused to order mandamus. The court
concluded that, although the individual vote totals were "official
records" subject to the Act, they, nonetheless, fell within the
Act's exemption for "scholastic records." We awarded Wall an
We will assume, without deciding, that a student candidate's
individual vote total is an "official record" under the Act and,
therefore, must be disclosed absent an applicable
exclusion.2 Thus, the issue
for decision is whether such information may be withheld from
disclosure pursuant to the Act's "scholastic records"
Pursuant to Code sec. 2.1-342(B)(3), "scholastic records . . .
containing information concerning identifiable individuals" are
excluded from the provisions of the Act, "but may be disclosed by
the custodian in his discretion, except where such disclosure is
prohibited by law." The term "scholastic records," as used in the
Act, means, in pertinent part,
those records, files, documents, and other materials containing
information about a student and maintained by a public body which
is an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for
such agency or institution.
Code sec. 2.1-341. (Emphasis added.)
It is firmly established that, when a statute is clear and
unambiguous, a court must accept its plain meaning and not resort
to rules of construction or extrinsic evidence. Carr v.
Forst, 249 Va. 66, 69-70, 453 S.E.2d 274, 276 (1995).
Therefore, applying the plain-meaning rule to Code secs. 2.1-341
and -342(B)(3) in the present case, we conclude that the material
Wall seeks is maintained by an educational institution, contains
information about identifiable students, and is exempt from
mandatory disclosure under the Act.3
Notwithstanding the plain meaning of Code secs. 2.1-341 and
-342(B)(3), Wall endeavors to buttress his claim by invoking Code
sec. 22.1-287(C), a part of the Education Title of the Code. That
section states that various restrictions on the release of
information about pupils "shall not apply to the giving of
information by school personnel concerning participation in
athletics and other school activities, the winning of scholastic or
other honors and awards, and other like information."
We do not see how Code sec. 22.1-287(C) helps Wall. Even if we
assume that it permits the disclosure of the information he seeks,
it clearly does not require such disclosure. The issue presented in
this appeal is whether the Act requires disclosure, and the Act
clearly provides that disclosure of even exempt information is in
the custodian's discretion, except where such disclosure is
prohibited by law. Code sec. 2.1-342(B).
Consequently, we hold that the trial court properly ruled that
the information sought by Wall was exempt from disclosure under the
Act. Accordingly, we will affirm the trial court's judgment.
1. In view of our decision, we do not consider
the assignment of cross-error regarding whether the individual vote
totals were "official records" subject to the Act.
2. The Act defines "official records" as
All written or printed books, papers, letters, documents, maps
and tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, reports or other
material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, prepared,
owned, or in the possession of a public body or any employee or
officer of a public body in the transaction of public business.
Code sec. 2.1-341.
3. We reach this conclusion with full
awareness of the policy expressly stated in Code sec. 2.1-340.1.
This Code section provides, in pertinent part, that the Act "shall
be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all
persons of governmental activities . . . [, and] any exception or
exemption from applicability shall be narrowly construed in order
that no thing which should be public may be hidden from any