HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — High profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump and his team said there were multiple chances for someone from Huntsville City Schools to intervene leading up to the 2019 death of Huntsville teen Nigel Shelby.
Over dozens of pages, attorneys claim Shelby was in mental distress and school employees failed to take his self-harm and suicidal thoughts seriously.
The 54-page lawsuit claims Huntsville High School failed to follow its own procedure, counsel Shelby or notify his parents about what was happening. It consists of nine counts: Title IX violations on grounds of gender/sex discrimination, Title VI violations based on race discrimination, Equal Protection Clause violations based on race and sex discrimination, recklessness willfulness and wantonness, negligence, premises liability, breach of contract, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In each count’s description the family requests in excess of $75,000 in addition to compensatory, punitive and other damages.
Huntsville City Schools announced in March the district anticipated being sued by Shelby’s family.
Tuesday, a spokesperson for the system couldn’t directly address the suit but said parents who are concerned their child is being bullied should keep an open line of communication with school administrators.
“If your student’s experiencing any type of bullying or any situation at school that may make them uncomfortable, please speak with a trusted adult at your school,” said Craig Williams. “We want to do everything we can to help resolve the issue.”
Nigel’s mother Camika Shelby, who described the last two years as the toughest time in her life, said she did exactly right by her son.
“As a parent, you want to do anything you can to protect your kids,” she said. “I reached out to see what was going on in school. I was always told everything was fine, and it wasn’t fine”
The lawsuit names four Huntsville High School employees, including then-freshman academy principal Jo Stafford. It outlines occasions where Shelby sought help from Stafford. The documents claim Stafford told Shelby being gay “was a choice” and suggested he could choose a different sexual orientation to avoid issues.
The lawsuit also mentions several unnamed students who claim Stafford was aware Shelby was at risk for self-harm. In one instance the suit claims students took Shelby to Stafford and he was left feeling “humiliated” when Stafford “played what she referred to as ‘Black People’ music and wanted the students to ‘get up and dance’” to make him feel better.
Attorneys claim after Shelby took his life, Stafford contacted his mother and let her know where she might find a suicide note.
The Huntsville teen’s death garnered national attention. His father said he had big dreams.
“When he was little, he told me ‘dad I’m going to be famous one day.’ I look at this tragedy, you know, this was not the type of famous I was looking for him to be,” said Patrick Cruz.
The teen’s mom said she’s spent most of the last two years being apprehensive about the suit but she’s ready to help make a difference.
“If going through with this lawsuit is what I’ve gotta do to bring change, to bring justice,” she said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Huntsville City Schools confirms Stafford retired February 2020.