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Calif. firefighter recruit sues for sexual harassment, retaliation

Nicole Pappas claims male members of her recruiting class criticized her weight, commented on her butt and forced her to look at penis drawings


By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — A former firefighter recruit is suing San Diego for discrimination, harassment and retaliation because she was fired last year after speaking up about lewd comments and penis drawings in the Fire Academy locker room.

Nicole Pappas, 31, claims male members of her 2015 recruiting class criticized her weight, commented on her butt and forced her to look at penis drawings by taping them on the wall, emailing them and posting them on social media.

After she described such things during an independent investigation by the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pappas claims the city added a discriminatory requirement that she couldn’t fulfill.

In a response to the lawsuit, attorneys for the city contend the requirement — running 3 miles within 24 minutes — was not discriminatory and that Pappas’ failure to fulfill it was the only reason for her dismissal.

Pappas’s lawsuit is mostly focused on behavior in her academy class, which had 33 men and three women. In addition to making comments and posting penis pictures, some male recruits allegedly pushed and shoved her.

But Pappas also claims Fire Department supervisors saw the harassment and did nothing to stop it. She contends one instructor said to a male recruit, in reference to Pappas, “you’re going to let a girl answer the question and get it right before you?”

The lawsuit says the four-month academy was initially going well for Pappas, who actually completed the 3-mile run in under 24 minutes within her first month.

But she then broke her leg and couldn’t return to complete her academy work until fall 2016. In the interim, she testified during the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission probe about harassment she had experienced.

Her lawsuit claims the Fire Department then made the timed run requirement a pre-requisite for entering the academy, and she was then fired for failure to repeat her previous success fulfilling the requirement.

Pappas, who works as an emergency medical technician in San Diego for private vendor American Medical Response, says in her lawsuit she would make significantly more money as a city firefighter.

She contends the city discriminated against her by forcing male and female recruits to share the same locker room, making the run requirement mandatory for the academy, subjecting her to harassment and failure to prevent continued harassment.

The city has since eliminated the timed run as a requirement to either enter the academy or become a firefighter, the lawsuit says.

The Fire Department recently celebrated the 40-year anniversary of its first female firefighter in 1977, but only 45 of the department’s 893 firefighters today are women.

At nearly 9 percent female, Pappas’s academy class was almost twice as gender diverse as the department overall, which is about 5 percent female.

That’s a bit higher than the national average of 3.7 percent in 2015, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

And the city’s next academy class is scheduled to have eight females out of 24 total recruits, or 33 percent.

The city is also hosting outreach events with teen girls to encourage them to consider careers as firefighters or lifeguards.

The first female San Diego firefighters were the result of the federal government stepping in to stop alleged discrimination and demand the Fire Department begin hiring women in the mid-1970s.

Copyright 2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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