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Restraining order sought against campus administrator after friendly workplace hug

Christopher Forest, a new administrator at California State University Monterey Bay, had to appear before a judge last month for giving a coworker a friendly hug.

Forest, tapped as the founding director of the university’s budding Master of Science Physician Assistant program, had reportedly given the hug to a female coworker on his first day of work because she had helped him with some travel arrangements when he’d interviewed for the job.

But the hug’s receiver, Siphannay Burnes, an administrative and research analyst for the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, responded with a request for a restraining order against Forest. The judge declined to grant the restraining order but did admonish campus officials on Burnes’ behalf, saying she had a right to be fearful.

The dispute was detailed in a column this month in the Monterey County Weekly headlined: “A workplace hug triggers a possible lawsuit and a judge’s ire against CSUMB.”

“[Forest] seems like an affable enough guy. At least that’s how he came off on Dec. 20 in Monterey County Superior Court, where he appeared to respond to a CSUMB employee’s request for a restraining order against him,” wrote journalist Mary Duan, who was in the courtroom during the proceedings.

Duan obtained court documents detailing the complaint and response. In an email to The College Fix this month, Duan confirmed she had copies of the court filings and her summary of their details are accurate.

“[I]n a document filed in response to Burnes’ restraining order request, Forest on his first day at work ‘greeted Siphannay Burnes with a quick, friendly hug and thanked her’ for making travel and housing arrangements when he interviewed for the job,” Duan reported.

“I didn’t think that much of the hug because she hugged me back,” Forest wrote. “The culture at CSU-Monterey Bay is very friendly and congenial … hugs are common among colleagues at the university and in the community.”

For Burnes, however, the hug “triggered memories of past sexual trauma,” making her feel uncomfortable, according to Duan’s account, which added Burnes said she “felt horrible because I did not want to be touched or hugged by Forest. I felt used, sexually, and dirty.”

Burnes alleges that she reported the incident to her supervisor, Dean Britt Rios-Ellis, who said at the time: “That’s just how Hispanic men are, Siphannay.”

The Monterey County Weekly reports that Forest apologized and has never touched Burnes again, but he’s been in the same room with her for roughly six staff meetings since Burnes made a complaint to the school’s Title IX office; and what’s more, since filing the complaint, Burnes states she’s received negative performance reviews whereas before they were all positive.

Judge Vanessa Vallarta said she found Burnes’ fears credible, but “declined to issue the restraining order because the physical contact has not been repeated,” adding that the “university should also consider it odd that Mrs. Burnes should have to have contact under any circumstances with Mr. Forest. It seems there should be another place where she can beneficially contribute her work and he can keep contributing through his work,” the Weekly reported.

Burnes’ lawyer, Seth Goldstein, declined to comment to The College Fix. Burnes is now on medical leave through March, the Weekly reported. Forest did not respond to interview requests from The College Fix.

Noah Rappahahn, assistant director of university communications, told The College Fix via email that campus officials cannot comment on the case, but that “training and prevention measures are a campus priority.”

“Specific training required for supervisors includes ‘Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Program for Supervisors’ and must be completed within the first 6 months in position and every two years thereafter; supervisors are also required to complete ‘Sexual Misconduct Prevention Program’ within the first 6 months in position and every year thereafter,” he said. “All non-supervisor staff are required to complete ‘Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Prevention Program for Non-Supervisors’ within first 6 months in position and annually thereafter.”

Forest is no stranger to professionalism in the workplace. In 2015, while he was still an assistant professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Southern California, Forest was chosen to give an hour-long seminar on what is considered appropriate behavior in the workplace.

In a video of the lecture, Forest presents his audience with multiple real examples of unethical conduct in the medical practice, stressing to students and coworkers that disciplinary actions are public record. But more than that, he spends the first half of the talk giving an in-depth overview of multiple models of what it means to have compassionate and professional character.

“Character is who you are when no one is around,” he states, warning against arrogance and supervisors abusing their power.

MORE: University could punish neck rubs as sexual battery under new policy

IMAGE: V. Chal / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Will Nardi -- UMass Boston