Teaching assistant who raised concerns over 9/11 footage wins victimisation case

Suriyah Bi suggested year seven pupils with special needs should not watch distressing video

A teaching assistant has won a case against her former employer for victimisation, after she objected to students being shown graphic footage from the 9/11 attacks in New York. It follows a judgment in March this year that ruled in her favour over unfair dismissal.

Suriyah Bi was sacked only two weeks into her job at Heartlands Academy in Birmingham, in 2015, when she raised concerns about a year seven class with special needs being shown footage of people jumping from the Twin Towers, according to a report published by the Guardian.

The 11-year-olds had been studying Simon Armitage’s poem Out of the Blue, which had been published to mark the fifth anniversary of the attacks. According to reports, Bi claimed the teacher involved had to use her personal YouTube account to get around a warning that the video was unsuitable for anyone under the age of 18. It was also alleged that children who raised concerns over whether they should be watching the video were silenced by the teacher.

On a safeguarding checklist, written by the school three days after her dismissal, comments were made about the fact that Bi had been head girl at Saltley School, which had been implicated in the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal involving allegations of radicalisation in Birmingham, and that she had subsequently written a dissertation on the effect of the scandal on pupils. The note also said she had raised concerns about the footage specifically because it offended her as a Muslim.

The school initially offered £11,000 in lost earnings, but Bi rejected this offer in favour of taking the case before an employment tribunal, and in March this year was successful in her claim for unfair dismissal because of whistleblowing. The whistleblowing aspect of the case meant her dismissal was automatically unfair, despite having served less than two years in the role. However, the judge rejected a claim that she was discriminated against on the grounds of her religion.

It has now been ruled separately that she had been victimised under the 2010 Equality Act. Bi has also applied to have her discrimination case reconsidered on the grounds that she does not believe she would have been fired had she not been a Muslim.

“The case of Miss Bi highlights the importance of considering the background to any decisions that employers intend to make,” Barry Stanton, head of employment law at Boyes Turner, told People Management.

“The findings that she was dismissed as a result of having blown the whistle and that she was subjected to acts of victimisation might appear surprising but, given the apparent background, each decision falls clearly within the relevant statutory provisions,” he said. “Employers need to exercise care when making decisions about continued employment when an employee has raised concerns in relation to safeguarding, health and safety or complying with legal obligations."

Keely Rushmore, senior associate at SA Law, said dismissing an employee with less than two years’ service is usually considered to be “low risk” from a legal perspective on the basis that the individual does not qualify to bring a claim of unfair dismissal.

“However, this case illustrates the need for employers in this situation to carefully assess and record their reasons for dismissal, and in particular to ascertain whether those reasons might fall foul of other legislation, such as the whistleblowing and discrimination legislation,” she said.

“A knee-jerk reaction (the employer here dismissed Ms Bi less than an hour after raising the objection) could have serious consequences, not only in terms of the compensation that could be awarded and the associated costs of defending an employment tribunal, but also in terms of reputational damage.”