A secondary science teacher who admitted to being “tactile” and to hugging students has been banned from the profession for two years.
He was found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct by a Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) panel.
John Thorn was employed as a teacher at The Highfield School, Hertfordshire, from September 2010 until his dismissal in December 2019.
The case involved two pupils, referred to as Pupil A and Pupil B, in the TRA report.
In 2016, it was alleged that Mr Thorn had hugged Pupil B, kissed her on the top of her head, texted her and arranged to meet her at a pub.
An investigation was carried out, during which Mr Thorn was suspended from his role. It was found that he had failed to maintain professional boundaries with a student and had seriously breached the school’s policy and procedures. He was given a written warning, active for two years, which expired in 2018.
The TRA panel found that Mr Thorn had arranged to meet Pupil B outside of school and asked her to keep the meeting secret. Mr Thorn said he could not remember asking her to keep the meeting secret but the panel found Pupil B a “compelling witness”.
It also found that Mr Thorn had kissed the pupil on the head as well as on her cheek, although he denied the latter.
'Not sexual in nature'
A second set of allegations were considered by the TRA panel, this time involving Pupil A.
In 2019, the mother of Pupil A had reported Mr Thorn to the police for sexual assault and the matter was referred by the headteacher to the local authority designated officer.
It was alleged that Mr Thorn made sexual or inappropriate contact with Pupil A and failed to maintain professional boundaries.
The school found that Mr Thorn’s conduct constituted gross misconduct and he was summarily dismissed. However, the family of Pupil A decided to not to support a prosecution and the police informed the school that they would not take any further action against Mr Thorn.
The TRA panel concluded that Mr Thorn’s actions in relation to Pupil A and B were “not sexual in nature”.
However, it also found, on the balance of probabilities, that Mr Thorn had used phrases such as “We shouldn’t be doing this” or “I’m not messing with your head am I?” with Pupil A, and told her she was “gorgeous” and “dangerous and/or tempting” – despite him claiming it was “out of character for him to use such words”, which the panel found “plausible”.
The panel also found that he had kissed her on the cheek, which Mr Thorn had denied.
Mr Thorn accepted that he had hugged pupil A and the panel report notes that “it was more likely than not that, during a hug, he had put his arm around her waist, had held her longer than he had before, and may have rubbed his hands over Pupil A’s back and hair, and had smelled her hair and put his head close to hers, and that he had done so in a supportive way as he had accepted he had done towards Pupil B”.
Referring to the proven allegations made by both pupils, the TRA concluded: “The panel does not accept, in the context in which the acts proven took place, on the evidence before it, that these acts were sexual in nature. It considers that such interaction often occurs platonically between friends, supportive adults and family members and the panel considers it conceivable that this was the case in respect of the conduct in issue.”
The panel was also of the opinion that Mr Thorn possessed a “tactile disposition” and hugged students, both males and females, with the aim of offering support. It also added that it was not convinced that he was preying on Pupil A, a vulnerable student, in any way, and that his interest in her “was due to a desire to help her”.
Pupil A commented in her witness statement that “Mr Thorn was a popular teacher and created a relaxing environment to be in. We would talk to him, not just about school things but also about our interests and hobbies, and how we were feeling.”
She also said: “Sometimes, when I left the classroom, Mr Thorn would hug me. He had also hugged my friends. At first, I liked being hugged by Mr Thorn, as it made me feel cared for and comforted.”
‘Abuse of trust’
However, the panel considered Mr Thorn’s misconduct to be serious and, while it was not sexually motivated, it was still an unacceptable conduct between teacher and student.
The report says: “This would be an abuse of a teacher’s position of trust. The panel’s concerns were heightened by the admissions made by Mr Thorn that he was a tactile person who was in the habit of hugging students, and the proven facts that he had not addressed or moderated his behaviour since he was issued with a final written warning in 2016.” This warning had highlighted his failure to “maintain appropriate professional boundaries including in physical interactions by being excessively tactile”.