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Ohio Charter School Serves as Safe Place for Gay Students

ACPA students wait backstage at the school's drag show.
ACPA students wait backstage at the school's drag show.

Arts and College Preparatory Academy, or ACPA, is so gay-friendly it could answer its phone this way:

GATTO: "ACPA. All gay all day. "

But it doesn't actually answer the phone like that.

That clip's from a satirical movie ACPA students made last year about how gay teens can feel isolated, and what a relief it is to feel welcome at school. About a third of the students here identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Many students come to the charter school because they felt bullied or unwelcome at their old schools.

KATIE: "I basically couldn't walk down the hallway without somebody (being) like, 'Dyke.' After I cut my hair off that just made things worse."

MARCUS: "If you're gay in Reynoldsburg, you're not OK, apparently. I've had people push me up against lockers, I've had people smack books out of my hands, throw my binders down the hallway and all that stuff."

That's ACPA students Katie Johnsen and Marcus Petry. Marcus took me on a tour.

MARCUS: "So this is our drag closet…"

ACPA has a drag closet. And an annual drag show. The school offers classes in gay history, and students write and perform plays about tolerance.

So is ACPA like the "gay" school? I asked Brooke Boster. Brooke has green hair and wears one pink hightop sneaker and one green one. She's a junior at ACPA. So is her girlfriend.

BROOKE: "I don't know if we're the gay high school. I feel like we're the safe high school, the better high school, the super-awesome high school. And we don't like hurt anyone's feelings and we're super sensitive to, like, everything."

Sure, many ACPA students identify as gay. Others are just artsy. Or are guys who love My Little Pony. Or just want a place where they can be themselves.

Eden Tetteh moved to Columbus from Ghana a few years ago and enrolled at ACPA this fall. She's not gay. She says she just likes being at a school where she can be herself.

EDEN: "I don't think it's the gay high school. ACPA's like a nonconformist school. So there's like no bullying so even if you brought yourself out there no one would bully you. Everyone has something about them that maybe they don't want people to know about but here you can just kind let that out there."

The school enforces a policy of intentional niceness.

Laura Garcia's son is a sophomore at ACPA. She can still remember the speech ACPA's enrollment director gave her son when he started.

GARCIA: "I will not tolerate negative behavior. I won't tolerate derogatory things. If I hear that you were at the mall and said something derogatory, you're out."

And school leaders make sure that prospective students know what they're signing up for. Zach Reau, a social studies teacher, says not everyone is ACPA material.

REAU: "If you see a boy walking down the hallway in a dress…If you're going to be OK with that, then this is the school for you. If not, maybe you should look somewhere else."

The school isn't free from all forms of social exclusion. Students who view homosexual behavior as immoral -- and are vocal about their beliefs -- would be challenged. The school has cliques. Students get upset at each other. And while ACPA is the kind of school where even the teachers have facial piercings, there is actually a dress code.

Tony Gatto is ACPA's principal. He's been with the school since it started in 2002. He says he's not particularly concerned that his school is pulling students out of traditional school districts, in effect, assisting gay students in a form of self-segregation. Gatto says it's more important for kids to have a school that is completely accepting of who they are and makes them feel safe.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.