Teaching assistant sacked for hugging distressed boy at nursery

A teaching assistant has been awarded £7,000 in compensation after she was unfairly sacked for hugging a young boy.

Sabrina Willmott was dismissed from her job in the nursery of Whitefield Primary Academy in Luton, Bedfordshire, after she was accused of ‘abusing her position of trust’.

She claimed she was also ‘ambushed’ with an allegation she had also kissed the pupil and was later sacked for gross misconduct, an employment tribunal heard.

Her former employers have now been ordered to pay Mrs Willmott £7,257.18 in compensation after winning her unfair dismissal case.

The tribunal in Watford, Hertfordshire was told Mrs Willmott started working as a level one teaching assistant at the school in January 2016.

A child in the school’s nursery was assigned to her in October 2019 who needed extra support due to his special needs.

The pupil’s poor behaviour saw him moved from the main nursery room to a separate room to be supervised in January 2020.

Mrs Willmott worked with him in the separate room and two days later she asked him to do something and he ‘reacted badly’, the tribunal heard.

She said she was worried he would physically harm himself, so she ‘placed her arms around him in a hug to prevent a physical outburst to intervene before an outburst commenced’.

The Monday after the incident a meeting was called after a local authority officer raised concerns about what happened.

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

She ‘strongly and vehemently denied’ she had kissed the child, but admitted embracing him ‘to calm him down because he was really upset’.

The teaching assistant was left ‘very distressed’ by the accusations and was signed off work by her GP with stress as she feared the ‘very serious ramifications’ it could lead to.

Another colleague told bosses in February 2020 she saw Mrs Willmott get on her knees, help put the child’s coat on and fasten it, and give him a kiss on the right cheek.

She said she did not see anything else, but added Mrs Willmott was ‘very touchy-feely’ and that it was usual for her to ‘cuddle’ the child.

A disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct was held over Zoom in July 2020, but the kissing allegation was dropped due to ‘insufficient evidence’. Despite this, Mrs Willmott was still sacked.

She was told in a letter afterwards it was ‘the responsibility of all staff to ensure that they did not abuse or appear to abuse their position of trust and extend relationships beyond what was considered to be professional and acceptable’.

But employment judge Bellamy Forde ruled the hugging incident did not amount to 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 doing this.

‘I do not accept that hugging would always amount to gross misconduct… accordingly, I find that [Mrs Willmott] was unfairly dismissed.’