ET Awards £45K to Teacher Accused of Sexual Assault “For Fun” by Highschool Girls

In the case of Mr Jonathan Hawker v Devonport High School for Girls, an employment tribunal has awarded Mr Hawker £45,000. This is after the tribunal ruled he was unfairly dismissed following accusations of sexual assault. 

Whilst some students claimed he touched them inappropriately, others claimed they falsely accused him “for fun”. Dealing with false accusations in the workplace can be difficult. So, read our guide about how investigations should occur to avoid unfair dismissal claims.

The Facts in Mr Jonathan Hawker v Devonport High School for Girls

Background – A Series of Allegations

Mr Joathan Hawker (“The Claimant”) began working for Devonport High School for Girls (“The Respondent”) in March 2017 as a maths and computing teacher.

On 7 June 2019, Mr Hawker met with the deputy head teacher, Mr Thomas, following a complaint made by two students. They claimed he invaded their personal space and touched their shoulders. Another student stated that he’d massaged their shoulders and told a student, “I’m going to make you wet”.

The claimant acknowledged tapping students’ shoulders to ask to use their chairs. He said that his only wrongdoing was to reach between students to use their keyboard. However, he denied making inappropriate statements and any misconduct. Mr Thomas was satisfied that Mr Hawker didn’t have bad intentions and didn’t see any safeguarding concerns; thus, no formal procedure occurred.

Then, on 23 June 2021, Mr Hawker was accused of sexual assault. A student told her tutor, Mrs Morgan, that he had touched another student’s leg. The following day, Mrs Morgan explored the allegations further and heard that another student had apparently experienced something similar. 

Following her findings, Mrs Morgan reported her concerns to the acting head, Mrs Bell. This led to Mrs Morgan taking students’ statements on 28 June 2021. Their statements referenced incidents of the claimant giving shoulder massages, stroking thighs and winking at students.

That same day, the claimant was suspended. He was given little detail concerning his suspension, barring that it regarded an allegation of misconduct pending further investigation. He was told it didn’t constitute disciplinary action or imply an assumption of guilt.

A New Report From Older Students

Sometime later, on 9 July 2021, two students from the year above those who accused Mr Hawker made their own report. The students spoke to Mr Thomas and explained how they overhead conversations between students who’d previously accused the claimant of sexual assault. 

They claimed that they heard the younger students say they had falsely accused Mr Hawker to get him fired for fun. Mr Thomas reported this to Mrs Bell; however, the school looked into these reports and dismissed them. This was partly because the older students couldn’t identify the younger ones.

The Arrest

On 1 September 2021, Mr Hawker was arrested for two offences of sexual activity as an adult in a position of trust. The tribunal learned that this was the first time the claimant was made aware of the allegations against him.

The Internal Investigation

Then, on 24 November 2021, Mrs Bell notified Mr Hawker of an internal investigation. A teacher with no prior experience in investigating was tasked with its completion. They were told broadly to investigate allegations against the claimant about inappropriate behaviour towards students, with little specific detail.

During the investigation, some students added to their initial statements, while one made changes, withdrawing some allegations. Some of the students’ statements then conflicted after the withdrawal.

On 30 November 2021, Mr Hawker was invited to an interview concerning “an allegation from pupils that you acted inappropriately towards them”. This took place on 13 December 2021.

During this interview, the claimant denied the allegations and said the students had concocted these stories due to previously being told off. Also, he was appalled at the links made to the 2019 complaints. He explained that he was new to teaching back then and only leaned between students to assist them. He stated that those events taught him lessons but were irrelevant to this matter.

After the investigation, the investigatory officer found that, in their opinion, Mr Hawker had overstepped the boundaries and failed to consider student welfare. Although each incident was reported as “allegedly”, the teacher concluded that the claimant was guilty of each offence. 

This was despite them being “alleged”, the conflicting statements and the older students’s reports. Following their findings, recommendations were made to dismiss Mr Hawker on grounds of gross misconduct. 

The Disciplinary Hearing

On 18 January 2022, Mr Hawker was invited to a disciplinary hearing and provided the investigation report. This hearing occurred on 14 February 2022, followed by the claimant receiving a letter dismissing him for gross misconduct on 19 February 2022 based on the 2021 allegations.

On 8 March 2022, Mr Hawker appealed this decision. He claimed the respondent had failed to comply with the ACAS Code of Practice. An appeal hearing took place over two days on 17 April and 23 May 2022. Following this hearing, the initial decision was upheld on 8 June 2022.

After an unsuccessful appeal, followed by ACAS conciliation between 16 and 25 May 2022, Mr Hawker brought his claim on 23 June 2022.

The Decision of the Employment Tribunal

The employment tribunal explained that although the school is obligated to student welfare, it also has a duty to employee welfare as an employer. They said their job wasn’t to assess the claimant’s guilt of the alleged offences but whether the respondent was fair in their decision-making and procedure.

The tribunal concluded that the respondent’s dismissal of the older students’ reports was irrational. Furthermore, they stated that the school’s failure to investigate fully, including statements that potentially supported Mr Hawker, was unfair.

They said the disciplinary and appeal panel failed to evaluate the evidence correctly. No reasonable employer would have determined gross misconduct for doubting the claimant’s evidence or believed the student’s allegations to be true without investigating further and looking at contrary evidence. This included the reports from the older students and conflicts in reports from the younger ones.

The tribunal ended by stating that although it was outside their jurisdiction to make a finding on whether Mr Hawker committed the alleged misconduct, they ruled unfair dismissal had occurred. As such, they ordered the respondent to pay the claimant £44,868.

If you have been falsely accused of sexual assault, contact us today. We can discuss the facts of your case and advise on how best to proceed. With years of experience, Redmans Solicitors are well-equipped to help you.