Shelby v. Huntsville City Board of Education
This federal civil rights case involves the tragic death of Nigel Shelby, a Black, out gay freshman at Alabama’s Huntsville High School who died by suicide at age 15 after experiencing unchecked LGBTQ+ harassment and race discrimination at school. Nigel never felt safe at Huntsville High School. Students subjected him to anti-gay slurs nearly every day and routinely told him that nobody cared about him and he should kill himself for being gay. Nigel was also physically assaulted on the school bus because of his sexual orientation.
The school’s lead administrator for the freshman class, Jo Stafford, knew about the harassment and the devastating impact it was having on Nigel: Nigel told her how upset he was over the harassment, and a concerned classmate told her that Nigel was cutting himself and expressing suicidal thoughts. Instead of helping Nigel, Stafford blamed him for his own harassment, saying it was the price he had to pay for being gay. She also mocked Nigel for complaining, asking if this was “another one of his episodes where life is getting too hard and things get tough and we want to kill ourselves.” Piling on, Stafford suggested that Nigel and his classmate get up and dance to “black people’s music” to make Nigel feel better.
Nigel’s estate and heirs (his parents) filed suit against the Huntsville City Board of Education and Jo Stafford, asserting violations of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin; and the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits both race and sex discrimination. The suit alleges that Nigel was deprived of educational opportunities, and ultimately his life, because of the defendants’ deliberate indifference to the anti-gay harassment he was experiencing, a lack of adequate training to prevent and address such harassment, and their own intentional discrimination against Nigel.
On March 29, the parties reached a settlement. The settlement agreement requires the Board of Education to implement a series of policy and training changes designed to better protect LGBTQ students from sex-based harassment, including by:
- Making Title IX policy changes clarifying that sex-based discrimination includes conduct based on a person’s sexual orientation and nonconformity to gender stereotypes;
- Ensuring additional, readily accessible resources and information on how to identify and report bullying and harassment, including harassment of LGBTQ students, are available for all district students and parents;
- Implementing professional development and external training on best practices for all school administrators, faculty and other personnel who regularly interact with students or are involved in receiving or investigating bullying and harassment complaints, including harassment of LGBTQ students;
- Hiring external consultants with expertise in schools’ prevention and response to LGBTQ harassment and racism to conduct a comprehensive review of the district’s relevant policies, practices, procedures, and training; conduct climate assessments; and make recommendations for improvement;
- Conducting annual school climate surveys to identify and assess harassment and bullying in the district’s schools;
- Developing and implementing district-wide procedures for electronically recording and tracking all incidents of bullying and harassment;
- Continuing to implement a suicide prevention program for students and considering any improvements recommended by the external consultants; and
- Providing annual reports for three years to counsel for Nigel’s family showing compliance with the non-monetary terms of the settlement.
The settlement also includes $840,000 in financial compensation to the family, including damages and attorneys’ fees.
Responsible Attorneys: Adele Kimmel, Alexandra Brodsky, and Mollie Berkowitz
Cooperating Attorneys: Joseph Wardenski of Wardenski P.C. and M. Lynn Sherrod and Kenneth B. Cole, Jr., of Conchin, Cole, Jordan & Sherrod