Deputy on leave for homophobic comment over teen's suicide

The mother of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby said he had been bullied over his sexuality.
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By Gwen Aviles and Janelle Griffith

An Alabama deputy has been placed on administrative leave for writing a homophobic comment on a Facebook post about a gay teen who died by suicide.

Nigel Shelby died by suicide after being bullied for being gay.GoFundMe

Madison County Deputy Jeff Graves wrote that he is “seriously offended” by the LGBTQ movement in response to a WZDX-TV Facebook post about the death of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby, who was a freshman at Huntsville High School in Alabama. Shelby was being bullied over his sexuality, his mother told NBC News.

"He would tell me that kids would say things to him that would hurt his feelings," Camika Shelby said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I didn't think it was as deep as things I'm hearing now."

The deputy also mocked the LGBTQ community in the comment by redefining its commonly used acronym as “Liberty Guns Bible Trump BBQ" and stating "That’s my kind of LGBTQ movement,” according to local NBC affiliate WAFF.

The Madison County Sheriff's Office told NBC News on Tuesday it had received complaints of a social media post allegedly made Sunday by one of its employees.

"The sheriff's office holds all its employees to high standards and the public can be assured that a thorough and complete audit will be conducted and appropriate action will be taken," a sheriff's office spokesman said.

Graves, who did not immediately return a request for comment, has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the audit.

The deputy’s redefinition of "LGBTQ" is similar to one used by Belle’s Smokin’ BBQ, a Kentucky restaurant that came under fire over the weekend for selling T-shirts that read: "I support LGBTQ: Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump, BBQ."

Nigel Shelby's mother said she is saddened and shocked by the death of her only child.

"The night before it actually happened, we had a conversation before I went to bed because I had to be at work at 3 a.m. the next day," Camika Shelby said. "He told me he loved me and he wanted me to have a good day at work."

She said she hopes to bring awareness to the dangers of bullying and the effects it can have on children like her son, who was struggling with his identity.

"If they're going through stuff already and you have other kids who are making them feel bad about themselves, it has an even bigger impact than if they weren't struggling with those things," Camika Shelby said.

Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer are five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to their straight peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, research shows. Black youth, like Shelby, are especially vulnerable and take their lives at nearly twice the rate of their white counterparts, according to a 2018 CDC study.

Nearly 74 percent of LGBTQ youth nationwide report not feeling safe at school, according to the Center for Social Equity. And in Alabama, there are no nondiscrimination laws and policies covering LGBTQ students.

Nadia M. Richardson, a Huntsville High School alumna and the founder of the mental health advocacy organization No More Martyrs, said that Shelby’s death underscores that suicide among black youth is on the rise.

“We have so much to understand and so much work to do,” Richardson said in a recent Facebook post. “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism; all of that plays a part. Bullying is a byproduct of a world ill-equipped to include that which is deemed different.”

Advocacy groups, including the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention services to LGBTQ youth, has said that just one supportive person can decrease an LGBTQ youth’s risk of suicide by 30 percent.

Amit Paley, the executive director of the Trevor Project, noted that his organization often hears from “LGBTQ young people who have thoughts of suicide, or feel unsafe or unloved at school or home — just for being who they are.”

“We know how challenging coming out can be at any age, especially in environments that may include risk factors for increased rates of discrimination, rejection and bullying,” Paley said in a statement. “We encourage adults who interact with youth to learn more about LGBTQ competent suicide prevention and risk detection, and to remind LGBTQ youth that they are never alone, that their lives have value, and are loved."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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Gwen Aviles

Gwen Aviles writes for NBC News' Latino, Out, BLK and Asian America verticals.  

Janelle Griffith

Janelle Griffith is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.