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Parents of gay teen who died by suicide sue school district for ignoring his pleas for help

Nigel Shelby told school administrators that he was being bullied. His friends reported they were afraid he was harming himself. The school did nothing, a lawsuit alleges.
Illustration of Nigel Shelby.
Anke Gladnick / for NBC News

Nearly two years after a teenager died by suicide after allegedly being bullied at his Alabama school, his family Tuesday filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the district.

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.

The attorneys, civil rights lawyers Benjamin Crump and Jasmine Rand, said Shelby, 15, who was gay, had repeatedly reported being bullied at school and on social media, but was told by Huntsville High School's then-freshman principal Jo Stafford 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."

Shelby's family is suing Huntsville City Schools, the Huntsville City Board of Education, the City of Huntsville and several individual school officials.

Nigel Shelbyvia Facebook

Crump, who was in Minneapolis on Tuesday also representing the families of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, two Black men who died at the hands of police, noted that tackling racial bias from school officials was just as important as fighting police bias.

School officials also ignored friends of Nigel's who came forward saying that they were afraid he was harming himself and "were afraid Nigel would take his own life," Rand said.

The lawsuit mentions several students who, on separate occasions, reported their concern for Nigel's wellbeing. NBC News has not verified the accounts from the students, who are not identified.

The lawsuit said Stafford told one student “that she didn’t care," and that Nigel "was going through one of his episodes.”

Sometimes, the students would accompany Nigel to Stafford's office when he went to report the physical and verbal bullying, the lawsuit said.

Instead of alerting Nigel's parents, Stafford told Nigel that if he was going to make adult decisions regarding his sexual orientation, then he had to be prepared to face adult consequences, the suit said.

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. She "then flipped the timer on her desk over to start the time summarily dismissing and mocking" Nigel's "desperate cries for help."

Stafford told Nigel and other students to "dance to Black people music" to feel better in her office, the lawsuit said. The incident humiliated Nigel, the suit said.

Several hours after Nigel died on April 18, 2019, his mother said she was contacted by Stafford who 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.

"People at his school knew that he planned to take his own life," Camika Shelby said at the time. "I need to find out who knew and why nobody told me until after he died.”

Shelby said her son had come out to her, and she was supportive. "I just grabbed him and hugged him and told him I already knew," Shelby told NBC News after his death. She said he told her he was being bullied.

"I reached out to see what was going on at school and I was always told everything was fine, and it wasn’t fine," Shelby said Tuesday.

"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," Shelby said.

"It hurts even worse because as a parent you want to do everything you can to protect your kid," Shelby added. "I’m not the type of mother that would have allowed my child to just continuously go through this so it hurts."

Huntsville school administrators were "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, the lawsuit said.

Stafford did not respond to message requests for comment Tuesday. Phone numbers listed for her went unanswered. Her profile is still posted on the Huntsville High School website, an email sent to her listed school address was returned as undeliverable. The profile was removed by Wednesday.

A statement from Huntsville City Schools released last month before the lawsuit was formally announced and shared with NBC News by the district Tuesday said Nigel's "loss continues to be felt by both the school and district community."

"The district wishes to remind students, families, and staff members of the longstanding resources in place to support students," the statement said.

"Consistent with the district’s Core Values, HHS [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 added.

On Tuesday, Rand said: "To make a statement and to enforce policy are two different things.

"Nice press statements don't save lives," she said. "I hope they will be committed to saving lives."

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times more likely to have attempted suicide as compared to heterosexual youth, according to the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention services to LGBTQ youth.

Meanwhile, in 2018, suicide became the second leading cause of death in Black children aged 10-14, and the third leading cause of death in Black adolescents aged 15-19, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nigel ShelbyGoFundMe

"When I hear everything that was going on at school, it crushes me," said Nigel's father, Patrick Cruz, Tuesday.

Cruz said his son was "intelligent, smart, outgoing," and "he had swagger too."

"I mean just he was a people's person," Cruz said.

"I play this in my head back every day for the last two years ... when he was little, he told me, 'dad, I'm going to be famous one day," Cruz said. "And I look at this tragedy ... this was not the type of famous that I was looking for him to be."

Nigel's mother agreed.

"I will do whatever it takes, when Nigel's name is said it’s not suicide attached to it, it’s change," Shelby said.

The goal of the lawsuit, Rand said, is to "bring justice on behalf of Nigel Shelby," make sure "Huntsville and other schools to follow the laws that exist" and to "get greater protection under the law."

Alabama, like more than half the states in the U.S., has no law specifically protecting LGBTQ students.

Shelby said she was reluctant to go forward with the lawsuit because of the emotional distress she knew it would cause her, "but 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."

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.