A former civics teacher in Virginia has filed a federal lawsuit against her school district, alleging administrators harassed her because of her gender presentation.
Dina Persico, a lesbian who taught in the Chesterfield County Public Schools, claims administrators at both the middle school and high school where she taught criticized her masculine appearance and created an unwelcoming environment. Persico left her job soon after she suffered a mini stroke she says was caused by stress at work.
The suit claims the school district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Colleen Quinn, Persico’s lawyer, says the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) along with several similar cases count discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender expression in the category of sex-based discrimination.
Persico taught at Hampton City Schools, another Virginia school district, for a decade without experiencing any problems. Persico said the harassment began at the beginning of her second year working at Providence Middle School in Richmond after its administration changed.
“I don’t think the new administration knew how to relate to me. I think I made them uncomfortable,” Persico told the Washington Blade on Feb. 14 during a telephone interview. “Then they start nitpicking on me and harassing me to the point where I have a medical problem.”
At the middle school, Persico was once barred from using the women’s bathroom. “I was going to the bathroom, and [a male teacher] put his arm out and said, ‘Woah, hey, there are girls in there.’”
“At first, I really thought he was just giving me a heads up because there were a bunch of kids in there after school,” Persico said. “But then he didn’t move his arm.”
She said she threw up later the evening due to the incident.
Providence Middle School administrators also suggested she change her appearance. One afternoon, the assistant principal met with both Persico and her wife, Erin Guthe, who also taught at the school. In the meeting, he called Persico’s look “harsh” and suggested she get “bangs” to soften it.
“Both of us were a bit in shock,” said Guthe. “I didn’t say anything because I thought, ‘Is this really happening right now?’”
Persico said the harassment continued after the school district transferred her from the middle school to Midlothian High School.
During her first month at Midlothian, she said she was asked by her assistant principal to explain her sexual orientation at a parent-teacher conference.
“At the end of the conference, [the parent] goes, ‘This is a nonissue and I hesitate to bring it up, but why does my daughter know that you’re a lesbian?’” Persico recalled.
She said her previous administration at Hampton City Schools had an official response to such questions. At Midlothian, however, the assistant principal “just looked at me and said, ‘You want to explain yourself there?’”
“I was just taken aback because it was so aggressive,” Persico said.
In a similar incident, a parent requested her child be switched out of Persico’s class because she didn’t like that Persico wore pants.
After the principal told Persico that he would be removing the child from her class — a decision she opposed — he said to her, “If you would just throw on a skirt or a dress every once in a while, I wouldn’t have all of these problems.”
“I was floored,” Persico told the Blade. “After that meeting, I had a pretty big panic attack. I vomited and had to leave quickly.”
Beyond those two incidents at the high school, Persico said she felt singled out and generally unwelcome at the school.
She said administrators consistently referred to her appearance as “flamboyant.”
Persico wore pink sneakers to school, which she said an administrator described as overly colorful.
“The kids loved them, but I was called into the principal’s office, and I was docked points from my annual teacher observation for those shoes,” said Persico.
Persico also claims administrators forced her to present a medical note to justify wearing sneakers of any color. Other teachers, she claims, did not have to do the same.
“The woman across the hall from me could wear them every day and never had an issue,” Persico told the Blade.
Persico said the harassment and stress she faced ultimately left her with ongoing health issues.
“I’ve never had any problems with blood pressure whatsoever,” Persico said, noting her blood pressure began to rise during her time at the school district and was especially high at doctor’s appointments after work.
This high blood pressure resulted in a mini-stroke that Persico said left her with with lasting memory loss and coordination issues.
She is suing the school district for $700,000 worth in damages. She, her wife and their lawyer also hope the case brings systemic changes to the schools.
“Our faculty is diverse as well. I think we need some training that says, ‘diversity is okay,’” Persico said.
“We’re hoping to build awareness and tolerance and acceptance,” Quinn added.
Timothy Bullis, executive director of community relations for the Chesterfield County Public Schools, on Tuesday declined to comment to the Blade about Persico’s lawsuit.
“Since this matter is in litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time on Ms. Persico’s allegations and the EEOC’s determination letters,” said Bullis in an email.