Growing up in Vestavia Hills, Karl Julian experienced the sort of isolation, loneliness and depression too many children do. It took years for him to overcome the life problems that followed, but he did.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to kind of pay it forward. People that are getting bullied, or people that have been picked on and marginalized. I’ve always just kind of had a soft spot,” Julian said.
When a new charter school opened in Homewood with a mission of acceptance and love, and a safe place for LQBTQ students, Julian contacted the school to see if they needed help with extra curricular classes. Julian teaches martial arts in Birmingham.
In his work he regularly sees kids who have been bullied, Julian said, brought in by concerned parents hoping he can help them.
“So I see these types of kids. I interact with them,” Julian said.
His 14-year-old child was struggling after returning to in-person school following a year of online classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Julian said, and when the Magic City Acceptance Academy invited him to an open house, he invited his child to come along. The two spoke about whether to enroll in the school, and his child asked to do so.
“The number one proof for me is that we can tell a major difference in our daughter. She’s much happier. She seems more confident. She seems more strong,” Julian said.
The school doesn’t ask students about their sexual identity upon registering, and the school is open to anyone, regardless of their sexuality. When his child started at the academy, the curriculum was the same as what was being taught in the child’s previous public school, Julian said.
What’s different about the charter school is the attention paid to students’ wellbeing, he explained. Mental health counselors are ready to help when needed.
“They put students’ emotional and social health wellbeing as a top priority,” Julian said of the school. “They try to cast a wide net of all the people that may have fallen through the cracks, who’ve had troubles, for one reason or the other…There’s not any kind of agenda. We don’t have agenda-driven classes.”
So when Tim James, a gubernatorial candidate seeking to replace Gov. Kay Ivey, started attacking Magic City Acceptance Academy in speeches and in ads, Julian took notice.
After James’s ads attacking the school, in which he describes the school as “exploitation” of children, there have been at least two instances of people showing up at the school to film the students and shouting slurs at them. The school as a result hired additional security.
James in a television ad included photos that show students and staff at the school, which caused alarm among those pictured in the ad.
“They’re angry,” Michael Wilson, principal of the charter school, told news station WIAT. “They’re angry, and they have a right to be. What he’s doing and what others are doing in the way they’re campaigning is pushing voters away instead of bringing them in. It’s absolutely disgusting the angry nature of nearly every candidate’s commercials.”
Julian noted that James is polling behind Ivey, and explained that the attacks on the school are coming from desperation and said James is “Fighting a losing battle,”
“This is an easy target. This is easy to get people riled up, but it’s completely mischaracterized,” Julian said. “These kids just want to go to school.”
James’s attacks put the charter school in the national spotlight, just as many Republican-led states pass anti-trans laws, including Alabama’s ban on discussing gender in schools, and the state’s law making it illegal to provide gender-affirming medical care to minors. A federal Judge late Friday temporarily blocked Alabama’s law banning that care, allowing a lawsuit against the law to proceed.
Julian said if he could, he’d tell James that there are plenty of other topics he could focus on, “but you need to leave the kids alone.”
“Nobody’s using these kids,” Julian said. “They want to teach them. They want to help them and they want them to be okay to be themselves.”