Nigel Shelby was 15 and attending high school in Huntsville, Alabama when the bullying began. He was called names, harassed on social media and shunned by classmates simply for being gay. When he complained to school administrators, they lectured him on what they considered “right and wrong” when it came to sexuality and did nothing to help him, despite his repeated pleas. Sadly, feeling he had nowhere to turn, Shelby took his own life on April 18, 2019.
Two years later, Elisha Fieldstadt of NBC News has reported that his family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Huntsville City Schools, the Huntsville City Board of Education, the City of Huntsville and several school officials.
“Attorneys for the family of Nigel Shelby said school staff violated Title VI, which prohibits intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, and Title IX, which prohibits public schools from ignoring harassment based on gender stereotyping,” Fieldstadt reported.
The family’s attorneys, civil rights lawyers Benjamin Crump and Jasmine Rand, said Huntsville High School’s then-freshman principal Jo Stafford repeatedly lectured Shelby that being gay was a choice.
The principal “did not offer any assistance or take any responsibility to make sure that this child was protected and nurtured and loved,” Crump said. “He was making all kinds of cries for help.”
In a statement, Crump, who is also representing the families of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, two Black men who died at the hands of police, said that working to fight racial bias from school officials is just as important as fighting to end police bias.
According to the lawsuit, when Stafford was told by Shelby’s friends that he was self-harming and that they were concerned for his safety, Stafford said, “she didn’t care,” and that Shelby “was going through one of his episodes.”
In another instance when Shelby and his friends went to the principal’s office to report additional physical and verbal bullying, Stafford allegedly told him that “if he was going to make adult decisions regarding his sexual orientation, then he had to be prepared to face adult consequences.” She also neglected to alert his parents to the problem.
Fieldstadt reported that “another time, when Nigel went to Stafford for help, ‘she told him that he only had as much time as the hourglass sand timer would allow.’” The suit alleged that she “then flipped the timer on her desk over to start the time summarily dismissing and mocking Nigel’s ‘desperate cries for help,’” telling him and other students to ‘dance to Black people music’ to feel better in her office.”
After news of Shelby’s death broke in the community, the suit also states that Stafford contacted his mother and told her to look for a suicide note in his backpack.
“The fact that Defendant Jo Stafford expected to find a suicide note and even knew where to look is evidence that Defendants were well aware that he was at heightened risk of suicide,” the suit said. Huntsville school administrators were also “fully aware of the risks associated with suicidal ideations, bullying and discrimination, mental health disorders suffered by students, suicide training, signs to be aware of and trauma suffered by Huntsville High School students, and negligently failed to follow the training to the detriment of Nigel.”
In an interview with NBC News, Shelby’s mother, Camika, said, “people at his school knew that he planned to take his own life. I need to find out who knew and why nobody told me until after he died.”
“I reached out to see what was going on at school and I was always told everything was fine, and it wasn’t fine,” Nigel’s mother, Camika told NBC. “This has been the hardest two years of my life. … 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 you can to protect your kid. I’m not the type of mother that would have allowed my child to just continuously go through this, so it hurts.”
More than half of the states in the U.S. currently have no laws that specifically protect LGBTQ students. Rand said that one of the goals of this suit is to change that, as well as to “bring justice on behalf of Nigel Shelby” and to make sure Huntsville and other schools follow the laws that exist and to “get greater protection under the law.”
For Nigel’s mother, however, the mission is more personal, aware that a trial would cause incredible emotional distress to her and her family.
“If going through with this lawsuit is what I gotta do to bring change, to bring justice then I’m going to do whatever it takes, that’s the bottom line,” she said.