Teaching assistant sacked for hugging special needs student wins £7,000 payout

Sabrina Willmott, a teaching assistant at Whitefield Primary Academy in Luton, has been found to have ‘abused her position of trust’ by kissing a child with special needs to calm him down.

Sabrina Willmott hugged a child with special needs to calm him down (stock photo)

A teaching assistant has won over £7,000 after being unfairly fired for cuddling a pupil with special needs.

Sabrina Willmott was found to have “abused her position of trust” by kissing the child to calm him down.

She was then ‘ambushed’ with an allegation that she had also kissed the kindergarten student, an employment tribunal heard.

Although she “vehemently denied” the allegation, she was ultimately fired for gross misconduct.

However, her former employers, Pioneer Learning Trust, have now been ordered to pay Ms Willmott £7,257.18 in compensation after winning an unfair dismissal case.

The court, held in Watford, Herts, heard Ms Willmott started working as a level one teaching assistant at Whitefield Primary Academy in Luton, Beds, in January 2016.

In October 2019, she was assigned to a child in the school’s nursery who needed the support of a teaching assistant due to her special needs.

She worked at Whitefield Primary Academy in Luton

In January 2020, following the student’s behavior, the nursery teachers asked that he be evacuated from the main room to the separate “Nest” room to be monitored.

Mrs. Willmott was asked to continue working with the child in the “Nest”.

The court heard that two days later Ms Willmott had asked the child to do something and he had ‘reacted badly’ to the request.

She said she feared he would hurt himself physically, then “placed her arms around him in a hug to prevent a physical outburst from occurring before an outburst started”.

The following Monday, a meeting was called after a local authority protection officer raised concerns about the hugging incident.

Ms Willmott was told an allegation had been made against her that she had behaved ‘inappropriately towards the child by hugging and kissing’.

She ‘strongly and vehemently denied’ kissing the child but admitted to kissing him, adding that she kissed the child ‘to calm him down as he was really upset’.

The court heard Ms Willmott was ‘very distressed’ by the kissing allegation because of the ‘very serious ramifications’ it could lead to.

As a result, she was terminated by her GP due to acute stress.

In February 2020, another teaching assistant told bosses she saw Ms Willmott get down on her knees, put on the student’s coat, talk to him, buckle his coat and give him a kiss on the right cheek.

The witness said she saw nothing else and added that Ms Willmott was ‘very sensitive’ and it was customary for her to ‘cuddle’ the child.

A disciplinary meeting was held on Zoom in July 2020 to hear the allegations of gross misconduct, but the kissing allegation against Ms Willomott was dropped due to insufficient evidence.

However, she was fired anyway.

In the letter confirming his dismissal, it was stated that it was “the responsibility of all staff to ensure that they do not abuse or appear to abuse their position of trust and to extend relationships to beyond what is considered professional and acceptable”.

But Labor Judge Bellamy Forde ruled the hugging incident did not constitute gross misconduct.

He said: “I accept that it is likely that [Mrs Willmott] should have been wary of inviting the child for a hug and that [she] was aware of the risks associated with this practice.

“I do not accept that hugging is always a serious offence…as a result, I find that [Mrs Willmott] was unfairly dismissed.”

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