The family of an openly gay teenager who died by suicide after relentless bullying and harassment that was allegedly allowed to go unchecked by school officials is suing the city of Huntsville and its public school system for violating his civil rights.
Nigel Shelby, 14, died by suicide on April 18, 2019, after being tormented by fellow schoolmates, who physically assaulted him, called him derogatory names, racial slurs, and anti-gay slurs, and bullied him on social media as well in person. Shelby became more and more depressed and began engaging in self-harming behaviors as the bullying continued.
Civil rights lawyers Benjamin Crump and Jasmine Rand, who are serving as co-counsel for Shelby’s family in the lawsuit, said in a press conference on Tuesday that school administrators refused to take action to stop the bullying even after Shelby complained of the harassment he was receiving.
In one of the more egregious examples of harassment and bullying by adults, Rand alleged that Jo Stafford, who served as principal of Huntsville High School’s Freshman Academy, told Shelby that being gay was a choice and that he could simply stop being gay if he wanted his problems to go away.
Stafford also allegedly told him, when he complained about bullying on social media, that if he was going to make “adult decisions” — such as acknowledging his sexuality — he should be prepared to deal with the consequences.
Rand also alleged that Stafford told Shelby that if he wanted to feel better, he could dance to “black people music,” and turned on music in her office, in front of other students, while mocking Shelby in what Rand characterized as a “minstrel show.”
The wrongful death lawsuit, filed by Shelby’s family against the city of Huntsville, Huntsville High School, Huntsville City Schools, the Huntsville Board of Education and individual administrators in positions of power to deal with Shelby’s complaints, alleges that by failing to address the homophobic bullying, school administrators violated Shelby’s civil rights.
First, the lawsuit alleges the various defendants’ actions violated Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when they discriminated against Shelby based on his gender, his sex, and sexual orientation. The lawsuit also claims that school and district officials violated Shelby’s rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to take action to stop the racially-based discrimination and bullying he suffered at the hands of fellow students.
In each of the nine counts brought against the defendants, the family asks for in excess of $75,000 in addition to compensatory, punitive and other damages, plus attorney’s costs.
According to Rand, administrators not only ignored Shelby’s requests for help, but reports from other students warning them that Shelby was being tormented by peers and adults alike, and was experiencing suicidal ideation.
Adding insult to injury, following Shelby’s death, Rand claims that Stafford called Shelby’s mother, Camika, and told her she could find a suicide note in Nigel’s backpack — meaning she and others were likely aware of the emotional trauma he was experiencing.
“If the administrators had that much notice that Nigel was in risk of dying by suicide, they had a responsibility to intervene and try to save his life. But nobody did,” Rand said. “And today we’re going to hold those administrators accountable, that school accountable, and push for larger policy changes, because no child should be subjected to that type of racial discrimination, or subjected to discrimination and bullying and persistent harassment based on their gender, their sex, or their sexual identity.”
“We believe that implicit bias and discrimination, whether at the hands of the police who abuse their authority, or the hands of school officials who abuse their authority and skirt their responsibilities, is just as important,” Crump said. “Nigel Shelby’s life mattered, and Nigel never should have died by suicide on April 18, 2019, especially when he was making all kind of cries for help.”
David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, noted that suicide rates for Black youth have more than doubled in the last two decades, while suicide rates for non-Black children have decreased, highlighting the unique problems or degree of oppression or stigmatization that Black youth who also identify as LGBTQ may face.
“What we know, based on available data from GLSEN, is that students who are identified as members of the LGBTQ community, or who are thought or believed to be members of the LGBTQ community, face increased rates of bullying and harassment and violence in the very schools that they are compelled by law to move through,” Johns said.
“In so many states across this country, including in Alabama, LGBTQ+ students do not have the same legal protections as those who are not LGBTQ+. What do we as adults…have to say for the ways in which we don’t treat our precious children fairly and equally?” Johns added. “Nigel should be here, so that we could be having a very different conversation about ways to support him, and my hope is that his life and his legacy will allow us to accept the responsibility that we have, especially those of us who are mandatory reporters, to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of every single student.”
Nigel’s parents, Camika Shelby and Patrick Cruz, both expressed sadness and remorse over the loss of their son, noting that he had “shut down” and did not tell them about some of the bullying and harassment he was experiencing.
“It’s been the hardest two years of my life,” Camika Shelby said of the period following her son’s suicide. “It is a constant struggle. It’s a constant emotional rollercoaster. I’ve got so many mixed emotions, from being sad to being angry. The worst part about all of this, I mean, obviously is losing him, but it’s the fact that all of this stuff was going on and I had no idea. It hurts even worse because as a parent, you want to do everything to protect your kids.”
Camika Shelby also insisted she reached out to school administrators multiple times to find out what was happening, and was told “everything was fine.” She was shocked at some of the details revealed by Rand in the press conference in terms of how administrators engaged in their own mistreatment of her son.
Huntsville City Schools issued a statement last month saying it anticipated a lawsuit to be filed soon, telling AL.com that the school system typically does not address active or pending litigation.
“[T]he district wishes to remind students, families, and staff members of the longstanding resources in place to support students,”t he statement said. “At the district level, pillar two of the district’s strategic plan is Whole Student Development. This pillar includes resources dedicated to supporting the social and emotional needs of students. These include feeder-pattern social workers, licensed mental health professionals, and frequent professional development for staff on topics including culturally responsive instruction; equity and inclusion; and suicide prevention.
“Consistent with the district’s Core Values, [Huntsville High School] has a strong Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in place to provide support to LGBTQ+ students, and the district has partnered with GLSEN and the Anti-Defamation League to support its schools and students,” the statement continued, urging students experiencing thoughts of suicide to speak with a “trusted adult.”
While lawyers for Shelby’s family say they wish to see a change in policy to hold school administrators accountable so that other children who are Black and LGBTQ do not experience the same mistreatment Shelby experienced, they also note that enforcement of those policies is equally as important.
“I think to make a statement and to enforce policies…are two different things,” Rand said. “And from what I read in terms of the investigation into Nigel’s specific case, that this type of abuse and discrimination was not an isolated incident. It was widespread at Huntsville High School, and they already had policies in existence when this was happening to Nigel. So writing beautiful policies and making nice press statements doesn’t save lives. Enforcing those policies does. Staying true to your creed does, and I hope that they will be committed to saving lives going forward.”
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