TRINITY — Parents, students and teachers at Mitchell High School in Pasco County learned early Thursday that social studies teacher Robert Konrad no longer wants to be identified as a male.
The news came to parents via email and automated phone calls from principal Jim Michaels, while teachers and students learned of it at school.
"Mr. Konrad has begun the process of gender transition and is anticipating presenting as a female no later than August of 2015," Michaels wrote in the email, which he repeated in a staff meeting and during Konrad's classes. "As you can imagine, this is a very private decision, but Mr. Konrad has indicated that he will respond to appropriate questions you may have about the transition process."
Konrad, 30, declined to be interviewed.
Pasco County School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the district's employee relations director and equity manager worked closely with Konrad as he pondered how to reveal his news. The goal, she said, was to be sensitive to both his rights and students' rights, as well as the school's culture. She stressed that the decision to release the information was Konrad's alone.
"It's something that this teacher wanted," employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said. "He wanted this to not be through rumors when he starts to change appearance."
Konrad has been a teacher at Mitchell since 2010. His wife works at the school as well.
Kerry Archbold, one of Konrad's former students, spoke highly of her junior year history teacher.
"I didn't see it coming," said Archbold, now a freshman at the University of Central Florida. "It's great for him to feel comfortable enough to come out."
She called Konrad a "great teacher," and said she expected he would remain the same laid-back, easy-to-talk-to educator he always has been.
"He'll still have the same personality," Archbold said. "Now he's just Mrs. Konrad instead of Mr. Konrad."
At least a few parents began raising concerns after receiving the principal's email.
"They're afraid of disruptions in the classroom," said Wendy Howard, a local school choice activist speaking on some parents' behalf. "What is the potential learning loss," if teens focus on the teacher rather than his lessons?
Howard, who does not have a child at Mitchell, said the parents did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions against their children. But they worried about whether Konrad might promote or encourage something that goes against their core values.
"Teachers are supposed to be role models," she said. "They're supposed to leave their personal lives out of the classroom."
Vincent Paolo Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality suggested that such a concern is not legitimate.
"What's important for the school is what students think," he said. "If students there think that what matters most is the ability for this teacher to teach them, that's what the community members should be focused on, too. … This teacher is someone who is making a really hard decision, but I think in the long run it's a decision that will help them become a better teacher."
Kuhn said that Michaels, the principal, reminded students to remain focused on their class work and to "show what you know about having Mustang pride." She said the students and staff were respectful and supportive after the morning announcement. The district backs Konrad as he works through his personal decisions, she said.
"We believe instruction is not affected by a person's gender, and the district is committed to providing an educational environment that respects all members of our school community," she said.
Not all school districts react in the same way.
A transgender substitute teacher in Texas was suspended in the spring after a parent complained. And the Volusia County School District recently denied a transgender student access to boys' restrooms, stating the student was a girl.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.