It’s hard being young and Black in America. In fact, it’s hard being part of any marginalized community in the U.S. and in the world, and many people, even activists and educators, at times forget the importance of intersectionality. So now we need to have a conversation about how often Black people who also happen to be part of the LGBTQ community get overlooked and neglected until it’s too late.
The parents of a Black teen who was gay and died by suicide after allegedly suffering relentless bullying compounded by the willful indifference of school faculty have filed a lawsuit against the city of Huntsville, Ala., Huntsville City Schools and the Huntsville City Board of Education.
According to NBC News, the lawsuit on behalf of 15-year-old Nigel Shelby was filed Tuesday, but the teen’s death occurred on April 18, 2019.
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.”
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The suit also alleges that several students on multiple occasions came forward and reported the constant harassment and bullying Nigel dealt with and even mentioned that they were afraid he would hurt himself. Stafford is accused in the suit of telling a student who came forward on Nigel’s behalf that “she didn’t care” and that Nigel “was going through one of his episodes.”
And as cruel and negligent as that allegation might sound, it’s arguably the least offensive and egregious thing the principal is accused of.
More from NBC:
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.
Not only was the alleged comment about dancing “to Black people music” racist as hell and a wholly inappropriate thing to say to students coming to a faculty member for help, but it may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back as Nigel died by suicide hours after that confrontation, according to the suit. In fact, Nigel’s mother, Camika Shelby, was reportedly contacted by Stafford, who told her to look for a suicide note in her son’s 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 lawsuit states.
On Tuesday, Shelby told NBC that on multiple occasions, she “reached out to see what was going on at school and I was always told everything was fine, and it wasn’t fine.”
“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. I’m not the type of mother that would have allowed my child to just continuously go through this so it hurts.”
It sounds like rampant homophobia and contempt for a Black child and his suffering caused Nigel’s death. Sexuality isn’t a choice, and even if it were, it doesn’t justify a bullied student going unprotected.
If you or anyone you know is at risk, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. Suicide warning signs are listed here.