Chelsea* was on the verge of graduating from the FBI’s training academy at Quantico when she failed her final tactical training test. She and the others who failed were promised a re-test, she says.
But she never got to retake the exam—instead, she was brought before the Trainee Review Board and dismissed. A male in her class, who was also referred to the board, was able to take his re-test and pass. He’s now a Special Agent.
“Your instructors gave you nothing but glowing reviews but you will still be dismissed,” Chelsea recalled FBI Training Division Unit Chief Kellie Holland telling her.
In a proposed class-action lawsuit filed last week, Chelsea—who asked her name be changed for this article—and 15 other women accused the FBI of fostering a culture that discriminated against women during training and allowed a “Good Old Boy Network” within its ranks to “flourish.” At best, the women say, they were treated with double standards during training compared to their male counterparts. At worst, they claim they were sexually harassed and had their concerns dismissed completely.
One woman, who chose to remain anonymous in the lawsuit, claimed four different male trainees attempted to convince her to have sex with them in the back of their cars or on a vacant building floor. Instructors told her to smile more, with one allegedly asking other male trainees for details about her sexual and personal life.
“You own a mirror, you know you’re a pretty girl,” the trainee’s adviser allegedly told her when she disclosed the harassment, adding that she needed to “play the game” if she wanted to succeed.
A current FBI employee also claimed Training Division unit chief Holland allegedly said there was “nothing” she could do about the sexual harassment she experienced. “You will be having a lot of mixed emotions right now, and there is no internal appeal process,” Holland said, according to the suit.
On top of the accusations of “sexually charged commentary” from instructors at the academy, trainers allegedly referenced female stereotypes of women being moody. One male instructor allegedly said women were unreliable due to them being “too emotional” and sexually promiscuous. The same instructor also called a female African-American trainee with braids “spaghetti head,” and “constantly” talked about his “little blue balls,” the suit claims.
Former FBI Director James Comey allegedly told plaintiff Lauren Rose that discrimination was not happening at the academy despite her complaints, and told her to use her “pain” to move forward. Mark Morgan, current acting director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is also accused of telling Rose he had an issue with her “attitude” while he was Deputy Assistant Director. Neither man returned requests for comment.
Ten of the women were discharged from the training academy just weeks before they were due to graduate, with a number of citations—known as “suitability notations”—allegedly given due to instructor subjectivity during tactical training. Citations that knocked the trainee’s “candor,” “insubordination,” and “lack of emotional maturity” were allegedly handed out to more women than men. The instructors, who are almost all men, were also accused of failing to provide “objective guidance” to females and not punishing male trainees who exhibited similar behaviors.
“It was the only part of Quantico that was so discretionary,” Chelsea, now a local police officer, said of the tactical training unit. “You could be handed [notations] like candy.”
The women were referred to appear before the Trainee Review Board—consisting of several men and one women—after receiving their notations. The lawsuit states male trainees are statistically more likely to be kept in the program or put into the training class behind them, while women were “almost always recommended for dismissal.”
One plaintiff, Paula Bird, claimed a male trainee who appeared before the review board with her and another female was allowed to stay in the academy while the two women were dismissed. Their supervisor allegedly told the male he was only sent to the board because they were concerned only women appearing would make it seem like the “Academy was targeting females[.]” The male trainee was allegedly never in danger of dismissal, but was present to create a “false appearance of fairness.”
The lawsuit states the 16 women believe over 100 other women were subjected to “sexual harassment, hostile work environment, outdated gender stereotypes” during training or were terminated early due to gender bias. Since filing the lawsuit, lawyer David Shaffer said dozens of women have reached out to him with similar allegations dating back to 2011.
Marlene*, a former FBI employee involved in the lawsuit who asked her name be changed for this article, said the women involved approached the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to complain and wrote letters to Bureau leaders—none of which received a response.
“I don’t want to come off as being angry and bitter. We want to see the agency bettered,” Marlene said. “This is our last-ditch effort. Most of us don’t want to be in this situation. This is something we had to do.”
The FBI told The Daily Beast it was “unable to comment on litigation,” but is “committed to fostering a work environment where all of our employees are valued and respected.”
The suit asks for $300,000 per plaintiff, along with more female training instructors and a review of the evaluation process. The legal action is being supported by the Time’s Up legal defense fund, which works to fight sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.