Sixteen women allege discrimination at FBI training academy

WASHINGTON — Sixteen women who trained to become FBI agents and analysts have come forward in a proposed class action lawsuit filed Wednesday accusing the bureau of gender discrimination in how it trains and graduates new agents.

The women, seven of whom still work at the FBI, detail incidents where they say they were punished for behavior their male counterparts got away with. They also describe what they say is a male-biased review process, and even overt sexual harassment.

Ten of the former trainees agreed to be interviewed exclusively by NBC News. Five of them asked not to be identified by their full names.

The former trainees said their experiences at the FBI's training academy in Quantico, Va., left them feeling powerless and angry. "They made me feel like I was worthless and disposable," said one plaintiff, who asked to be identified only as "Ava."

RELATED: ABC's 'Quantico'

22 PHOTOS
ABC's Quantico
See Gallery
ABC's Quantico
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Jonathan Wenk/ABC via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO -Right - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) JOHANNA BRADDY, JANAYA STEPHENS
QUANTICO - 'Drive' - With only a few weeks until graduation, the NATS are dispatched to various field offices where Alex and Ryan find themselves working a case together. Meanwhile, in the future, Shelby and Caleb's relationship takes a turn, and Alex doesn't know who to trust when she discovers new information about the man she loves, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 1 (10:00--11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via via Getty Images) JAKE MCLAUGHLIN
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) JAKE MCLAUGHLIN, PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Drive' - With only a few weeks until graduation, the NATS are dispatched to various field offices where Alex and Ryan find themselves working a case together. Meanwhile, in the future, Shelby and Caleb's relationship takes a turn, and Alex doesn't know who to trust when she discovers new information about the man she loves, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 1 (10:00--11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) MARCIA CROSS
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) JAKE MCLAUGHLIN, JOSH HOPKINS, PRIYANKA CHOPRA, MARCIA CROSS
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Yes' - It's graduation day for the NATS of Quantico, while, in the future, Alex and her team find themselves head-to-head with the terrorist, on the season finale of 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 15, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) JACOB ARTIST
QUANTICO - 'Right' - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) PETER MICHAEL DILLON, PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO - 'Right' - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) JOHANNA BRADDY
QUANTICO - 'Right' - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) LI JUN LI
QUANTICO - 'Right' - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) GRAHAM ROGERS
QUANTICO - 'Right' - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) LI JUN LI, PRIYANKA CHOPRA
QUANTICO -Right - The NATS are excited that graduation is near as they prepare to leave Quantico and head out into the real world for their new assignments. In the future, Alex learns someone she cared about at Quantico is not who they seemed to be, as she finds herself at the heart of another possible attack, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 8, (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) TATE ELLINGTON
QUANTICO - 'Drive' - With only a few weeks until graduation, the NATS are dispatched to various field offices where Alex and Ryan find themselves working a case together. Meanwhile, in the future, Shelby and Caleb's relationship takes a turn, and Alex doesn't know who to trust when she discovers new information about the man she loves, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 1 (10:00--11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via via Getty Images) AUNJANUE ELLIS
QUANTICO - 'Drive' - With only a few weeks until graduation, the NATS are dispatched to various field offices where Alex and Ryan find themselves working a case together. Meanwhile, in the future, Shelby and Caleb's relationship takes a turn, and Alex doesn't know who to trust when she discovers new information about the man she loves, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 1 (10:00--11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA, JOHANNA BRADDY
QUANTICO - 'Drive' - With only a few weeks until graduation, the NATS are dispatched to various field offices where Alex and Ryan find themselves working a case together. Meanwhile, in the future, Shelby and Caleb's relationship takes a turn, and Alex doesn't know who to trust when she discovers new information about the man she loves, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, MAY 1 (10:00--11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Phillippe Bosse/ABC via Getty Images) LENNY PLATT
QUANTICO - 'Fast' - It's career day at Quantico as the NATS meet representatives from various FBI branches to help them decide their future paths. In the future, Alex continues to search for the terrorist, and in the process, discovers some familiar faces - including one who knows the terrorist's endgame, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, APRIL 24 (10:00-11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via via Getty Images) PRIYANKA CHOPRA, LENNY PLATT
QUANTICO - 'Fast' - It's career day at Quantico as the NATS meet representatives from various FBI branches to help them decide their future paths. In the future, Alex continues to search for the terrorist, and in the process, discovers some familiar faces - including one who knows the terrorist's endgame, on 'Quantico,' SUNDAY, APRIL 24 (10:00-11:00 EDT), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Philippe Bosse/ABC via via Getty Images) LI JUN LI
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

One of the women, Lauren Rose, provided an email she says she received from then-FBI Director James Comey in response to her frustrations at being dismissed from training after serving with the FBI for nearly 6 years.

Rose described unsuccessful attempts to speak with a supervisor to get clarity about the decision to dismiss her one week before graduation in May 2015. She says Comey responded in a lengthy message, telling her "I believe I have thoughtful leaders at Training Division, who apply tremendous care to such decisions," and he would therefore not question their actions.

According to the complaint, Comey encouraged Rose to "stare hard at the situation and what it teaches you, especially about your strengths and weaknesses."

Rose also alleges that Mark Morgan, now the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, took issue with Rose's "attitude" during her oral presentation, but provided "no substantiation to support why he felt that way." At the time in 2015, Morgan was a deputy assistant director of the FBI and handled new recruits for the bureau.

Another woman in the lawsuit, Paula Bird, claims she received demerits for not using a flashlight in a dark setting during a deadly force scenario. A male colleague made the same mistake that day and was not penalized, according to court papers filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday evening.

"It became very clear that there were people that they considered that needed to be watched, and that group would have majority females," said Bird, who graduated from college at 19 and law school at 22. "You're in the group that, 'You don't know what you're doing, you're not very good, and we're going to watch every move you make because we're expecting you to fail.'"

Another former new agent trainee, who is referred to as Jane Doe 1 in the lawsuit, described sexual harassment from four male classmates who tried to convince her to have sexual intercourse with them. Jane Doe 1 says she had to have a friend escort her to her room because one of the classmates would follow her there at night.

The lawsuit alleges that over 100 women who recently enrolled at the FBI's Basic Field Training Course in Quantico as New Agent Trainees or New Intelligence Analyst Trainees have encountered some form of gender discrimination, and that the problem is worse for women of color or those with disabilities. It is a proposed class action lawsuit, but the class is not yet certified.

"The FBI has intentionally allowed the Good Old Boy Network to flourish unrestrained at the FBI Academy," alleges the suit. "Training Division staff, including instructors, supervisors, field counselors, managers, and review board members, frequently dismiss mistakes made by male trainees as isolated incidents, determine male trainees to be retrainable, and retain them at the Academy at a disproportionately higher rate than their female trainee counterparts."

The plaintiffs, who were trainees at Quantico from 2015 to 2018, estimate that 80 percent of the trainees from their classes who were discharged prior to graduation were female.

According to statistics provided by the FBI, in recent years the average graduating class has been about 20 percent female. In fiscal 2019 to date, according to the bureau, females have accounted for 32 percent of the enrollment in the training course.

"If it was currently based on merit, we wouldn't be filing a lawsuit, said Clare Coetzer, adding that the subjective nature of evaluation was ripe for abuse by the predominantly male instructors. "They pick and choose who they want to leave."

Women also said they experienced retaliation by their superiors when they spoke up about alleged discrimination.

Erika Wesley said she felt obligated to tell a superior about "excessive discrimination" against a female coworker. Wesley said that when she told her female unit chief, however, "She looked me in the eyes and said, 'You coming forward and speaking up will not go without consequence. I hope it was worth it.' … And from there on out I was targeted. I was marginalized. I was isolated. I was harassed constantly."

Without additional data from the bureau, it's not possible to confirm a pattern. For fiscal 2019, however, if the beginning enrollment is 32 percent female and the graduating class is once again 20 percent female, it would mean females were discharged at a higher rate.

The FBI did not respond to questions from NBC News about the specific allegations because it does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.

"While we are unable to comment on litigation," said the bureau in a statement, "the FBI is committed to fostering a work environment where all of our employees are valued and respected. Diversity is one of our core values, and to effectively accomplish our mission of protecting the American people we need people of different genders, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are being funded in part by the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to aid women who are the alleged victims of sexual harassment and retaliation across industries.

The attorney representing the proposed class of new trainees, David Shaffer, said the FBI has not been willing to discuss these current complaints.

"Everybody wants to sweep it under the rug," Shaffer said.

Paula Bird, who still works at the FBI, said the bureau should take a look at itself. "We're an agency that investigates. If somebody's making a claim — multiple somebodies who are qualified for hiring and qualified for positions ... investigate it. And see if there's any truth to it."

The women said they hoped their lawsuit would spur changes at the FBI. "I don't want future daughters of America to have to deal with what we all went through," said Danielle Snider. "I want girls that have these dreams from when they're young to become FBI special agents to go out there with gender not being a deciding factor."

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.