Metro Weekly

Alabama District Settles with Family of Bullied Gay Student Who Killed Himself

School district agrees to adopt policies to prevent future anti-LGBTQ or racial bullying and harassment, which led to Nigel Shelby's suicide.

Nigel Shelby – Photo: Facebook.

An Alabama school district has reached a settlement with the family of a Black, openly gay teenager who died by suicide after experiencing unchecked anti-gay harassment and race discrimination at his high school.

The parents of Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old student at Huntsville High School at the time of his death, filed a federal lawsuit against the Huntsville City Board of Education and school administrator Jo Stafford in 2021 for violating Shelby’s civil and constitutional rights by failing to curb the harassment he suffered at the hand of his peers.

The lawsuit claimed that Nigel was deprived of educational opportunities and ultimately committed suicide on April 18, 2019, due to deliberate indifference by the school board and school officials to the harassment to which Shelby had been subjected.

The lawsuit also cited a lack of adequate training to prevent and address such harassment, and alleged that school officials had intentionally discriminated against Shelby based on his sexual orientation, failure to conform to sex-based stereotypes, and race.

As part of the settlement, which was announced on March 30, the Huntsville City Board of of Education agrees to implement professional development and external training on best practices for school administrators, faculty, and other personnel who regularly interact with students or are involved in receiving or investigating complaints of bullying and harassment.

Under the agreement, the district agrees to hire external consultants to advise schools on how to amend their policies, procedures, or training to better respond to allegations of LGBTQ harassment and racism, to follow those recommendations, and implement a suicide prevention program for students.

The district has also agreed to adopt changes to its Title IX policy clarifying that sex-based discrimination includes conduct based on a person’s sexual orientation or failure to abide by traditional gender stereotypes; make resources and information readily available to students on how to report bullying and harassment, including harassment of LGBTQ students; and develop procedures for electronically recording and tracking incidents of bullying and harassment.

Schools within the district will conduct annual school climate surveys to help identify and assess the prevalence of harassment and bullying against their own students, and the district must provide annual reports to the Shelby family’s attorney for the next three years as evidence of their compliance.

The district has also agreed to pay $840,000 in financial compensation to the family, including damages and attorneys’ fees incurred in the course of bringing the lawsuit.

According to the family’s lawsuit, Shelby was routinely subjected to anti-gay slurs from other students and told he should kill himself, resulting in him feeling unsafe at school. The family alleged that Stafford, the lead administrator for the freshman class, knew about the harassment, as well as Shelby’s self-harming behavior and suicidal ideation, but failed to take appropriate action to address it, instead blaming Shelby for his own harassment and saying it was the price he had to pay for being gay.

Shelby’s family had also alleged that Stafford had mocked their son’s feelings of depression, telling him and another classmate to dance to “black people’s music” so he’d feel better, without informing Shelby’s family of the harassment or their son’s mental state or attempting to connect him with a counselor or therapist who could assist him. Shelby later killed himself, approximately one week after allegedly telling Stafford how upset he was by the harassment he was experiencing, according to a classmate.

“There is no amount of money in the world that could ever replace Nigel,” Camika Shelby, Nigel’s mother, said in a statement. “You can’t put a price on a child. This lawsuit was about bringing change. It was about acknowledging that there needs to be change. It was about saving someone else’s child so that they don’t have to go through the horrible tragedy that I have. I hope this settlement will help bring about that change.”

“We’re very pleased that Huntsville City Schools has agreed to make substantial changes to ensure that students like Nigel are protected during a time when LGBTQ students are under attack nationwide,” Adele Kimmel, the director of Public Justice’s Students’ Civil Rights Project, said in a statement. “We know that LGBTQ students and students of color experience discrimination at disproportionately high rates, so it’s critical that schools take proactive steps to protect these students. By amending its Title IX policies to clarify that sex-based discrimination includes conduct based on sexual orientation and nonconformity to gender stereotypes, Huntsville is taking an important step in the right direction.”

“While Camika and Patrick lost a son, the world lost a smart, handsome, funny young person with limitless potential,” added retired Madison County District Court Judge Martha Lynn Sherrod, who served as co-counsel  in the case. “We will not know what or who Nigel would have become, but his legacy inspires all of us to cherish, protect and advocate for our children without regard to sexual orientation.

“Dr. Martin Luther King said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ Injustice or insensitivity aimed at the LGBTQ community affects all of us, and we must continue to work to eradicate prejudice in any form,” Sherrod continued. “Schools are not an exception to this rule, but must remain at the forefront to protect our children.”

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