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Is It Legal to Keep Students in Class After the Bell Rings?

Students being held late in a classroom after the bell rings.
By FindLaw Staff on February 26, 2020

When students in the 2004 film "Mean Girls" get out of control, their principal, Mr. Duvall, tries forcing them to play nice. "I don't care how long it takes," he says, "I will keep you here all night." His admin, Joan, quickly corrects him by saying "We can't keep them past four."

"I will keep you here 'til four," Mr. Duvall laments.

This movie scene may give students a false sense of security. It is actually legal to keep students after the bell. There are no direct laws against keeping people in class after the bell rings. Also, your school's policy or regulations can specifically say different rules about the bell.

However, teachers must be careful not to abuse their power to keep students after the bell.

Reasons to Hold Classes After the Bell

Many students are curious whether the bell or teacher dismisses them from class. The correct answer is that the teacher does. The teacher has this right as part of their role in keeping students safe.

The bell is just a helpful timekeeping tool. It shows how much time students have before another class starts. For example:

  • The first bell shows there are a few minutes before the next class
  • A second bell may show time is running out
  • The final bell shows the next class is starting

Ideally, a teacher and school bell should work in unison. However, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes teachers hold students after the bell because they:

  • Ran out of time in the lesson
  • Need to share relevant information
  • Want to punish the entire class

Holding students after the bell is an acceptable punishment (legally speaking). Most schools won't blink an eye at keeping a class late. But you do have rights under the laws in your state.

Problems From Students Being Held Late in Class

A teacher may or may not realize the broader issues with holding a class late. Students can face issues like:

  • Missing their bus at the end of the day
  • Arriving late to other classes
  • More punishments from other teachers for arriving late
  • Missing lunch or a shortened lunchtime
  • Not having time to visit lockers and get materials for other classes

You Have the Right to Leave Your Classroom

Legally, a teacher cannot stop a student from leaving their classroom. But it is not illegal to keep a student late. Confusing, right?

Teachers are also not allowed to physically stop, restrain, or hurt a student, except for specific dangerous or medical situations.

These situations are rare and could involve things like:

  • Stopping students from leaving a room if there is a shooter in the school
  • Holding a student by the shoulders while they have a seizure (preexisting medical conditions like this should always be discussed with the school ahead of time)

The right to leave a classroom is protected in various abuse laws. These laws give you the legal right to:

  • Leave for the bathroom
  • Have time to eat, or time to buy and eat a school lunch
  • Leave for medical care or to see the nurse

You do not have rights to leave a classroom for religious reasons, such as praying. Students can partake in religious activities only when classroom instruction is not happening.

Culture Surrounding Holding Students After the Bell

Most schools respect their teacher's decisions and will support the teacher. If a teacher thinks the class deserves to be held late, then the principal will likely back them up.

This is because a teacher has rights. They are the temporary guardian of the students while they are in the class. The legal term for this is "de facto guardian." While in a teacher's classroom, the law says a teacher has rights almost equal to a parent.

It is typical to be held about five minutes late between classes and 10-20 minutes late during a lunch or recess period. You can't be held so late that you can't eat lunch or catch the bus that day.

You May Face Consequences for Leaving at the Bell

Students, by law, do not technically need to stay in class. However, you should know that schools may have their own penalties if you leave. If a student leaves the room without permission, they could face:

  • Detention
  • A parent-teacher conference
  • Loss of privileges like school field trips or sports

The school has the right to choose consequences for a student's actions. As a parent, you have the right to discuss these penalties with your school's principal and admin staff.

Minors Facing Penalties at School

If you are a student above the minor age in your state (usually age 18), then you can represent yourself in any school disciplinary hearings. If you are a minor, then your parent or guardian must handle the situation for you.

What You Can Do About Being Held Late After the Bell

If you or your student are routinely held late, you have options. A student or parent can try asking the teacher not to keep them late and explain the reasons why. This can be an intimidating thing to do. You may be ignored or even met with anger.

As a next step, a parent or student can speak to the principal. Bring your reasoning for why the issue is causing more serious problems, like missing the bus. It is the principal's job to hear out your concerns.

If the Principal Ignores You

If you have tried the steps above and are ignored, you can escalate the situation. A parent can file a formal complaint with the school and local school board. This will start an investigation into the teacher and the incident.

If the teacher is abusing their rights or power, they can be suspended or fired. If you believe the situation is serious and the school is not listening, then an attorney is usually necessary. A lawyer that knows local education laws will work to hold the school and the teacher responsible for their actions.

The relationship between teachers and students is built on mutual trust. If a teacher is breaking that trust, then students and parents are well within their rights to take action.

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