When Dina Persico was hired at Providence Middle School in 2015, she said she felt very excited. She'd been teaching for 10 years at that point and was ready for a new challenge at the Richmond, Virginia, school.
Persico's enthusiasm soon turned sour, however, when she said she experienced harassment on the job almost immediately. Three years later, the former teacher has filed a federal lawsuit against Chesterfield County Public Schools for what she describes as gender discrimination.
Like many teachers, Persico had developed her go-to work "uniform" over the years — a button-down collared shirt, slacks and athletic shoes — but Persico said that outfit soon garnered her negative attention from coworkers and supervisors in her new job.
"Fellow teachers would refer to me as 'Mr. Persico' and I was physically blocked on one occasion from entering the female faculty restroom at Providence Middle School by a male coworker, allegedly because female students were occupying the restroom at the time," Persico told TODAY Style.
Persico, who's married to fellow teacher Erin Guthe, said school officials took issue with both her clothing choices and her sexual preference.
"The principal at Providence Middle School removed a student from my class after a parent complained that she did not want her child in my class because of my tendency to wear pants. The principal then suggested that changes to my appearance might make me 'less intimidating,'" she said.
According to Persico's federal lawsuit, the school's interim principal "made it clear on numerous occasions that, although Ms. Persico dressed professionally, he preferred and required that she dress more traditionally feminine."
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After two years at the middle school, Persico was transferred to Midlothian High School, where she said the harassment worsened.
"At Midlothian High School, the assistant principal demanded to know why my students knew that I was gay and asked me to 'explain myself' to a parent during a parent-teacher conference. The principal at Midlothian High School also had a meeting with me in November 2017 to specifically discuss my appearance and stated that he did not approve of my wardrobe choices," Persico said.
Shortly afterward, the teacher said she was docked "professional demeanor" points on her annual teacher observation.
According to her federal lawsuit, Persico was "repeatedly, and with increasing frequency, called in for disciplinary meetings and given write-ups for baseless accusations, while being continually told that the real issue with her behavior was her inability to 'fit the culture,' i.e., act straight and feminine."
Prior to this job, Persico said she had never experienced hostile treatment at work and generally enjoyed working with bright, young students.
"Students in my classes were very positive and we developed a strong rapport. Students would often seek me out as a trusted adult because they knew I would listen and treat them with respect," she said.
In the summer of 2017, Persico suffered a transient ischemic attack (otherwise known as a mini stroke), which her doctor attributed to stress. Due to the side effects of her TIA and stress at work, the teacher went on medical leave and has not been able to return to teaching since February 2018.
In October 2017 and February 2018, Persico filed two separate charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In both claims, Persico reported alleged discrimination in the workplace, both for a disability (she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorder) and on the basis of her sex. The EEOC later dismissed both charges, claiming there wasn't sufficient evidence to suggest Persico had been subjected to discrimination in the workplace.
After the EEOC dismissed both of her claims, Persico filed a federal lawsuit with Chesterfield County Public Schools.
Timothy Bullis, executive director, communication and community engagement for the school district, declined to offer an official statement on the pending lawsuit, but shared the following: "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," he shared.
For Persico's wife, the past several years have been a whirlwind of emotions.
"Watching Dina experience this sort of emotional and physical duress, and knowing I could not do anything about it, was almost paralyzing. I feel heartbroken for my wife. Now that she is removed from such a toxic work environment, it has been a blessing to watch her recover and remember who she is. The work we have to do now is to find her a job that is in line with her passion for teaching and working with kids, where she feels supported and safe," she said.
Guthe, who has been a teacher for 11 years, said she has never encountered similar gender discrimination at work.
"I have never been reprimanded, spoken to or otherwise consulted about anything I have ever worn to work. It is my belief that Dina has been an easy target for people because she is less gender conforming than I am," she said.
Persico's lawyer, Colleen M. Quinn, Esq. told TODAY she felt inspired to represent Persico after hearing her story.
"Dina’s case cried out to me as very compelling and tragic. I would have wanted to have a Dina as my history or civics teacher when I was in high school as she is enthusiastic, interesting and very funny. For her to be bullied to the point of having a stroke and being driven out of teaching because she did not meet feminine norms and was married to another female teacher is both outrageous and very sad," Quinn said.
While she awaits updates on her federal lawsuit against her school district, Persico said she hopes her story serves as an opportunity for increased compassion, especially in the workplace.
"Aside from feeling disappointed, angry and embarrassed, I also feel strongly that in this day and age, the clothes that a person wears should not precipitate harassment and discrimination. I hope that this story sheds a light on the intolerance permitted by the administration of these schools, and I deeply hope that common practices and supports can be put in place so that no teachers, and especially students, experience this in the future," Persico said.