I Lost My 15-Year-Old Son. Then I Learned The Horrific Truth About What Happened Before He Died.

"No other parent should have to go through what I’ve gone through, and I want to do whatever I can to make sure they don’t."
The author's son Nigel in March 2019. "Why did Nigel think that suicide was his only option? What I learned devastated me," she writes.
The author's son Nigel in March 2019. "Why did Nigel think that suicide was his only option? What I learned devastated me," she writes.
Courtesy of Camika Shelby

My son Nigel was 15 years old when he passed away. Nigel was funny. He had a heart of gold. His smile would brighten up anyone’s day. He was sweet, loving and caring. He was Nigel.

Nigel was also gay. Throughout his freshman year at Huntsville High School, in Huntsville, Alabama, he was constantly bullied and harassed by classmates because of his sexual orientation. When he sought help from school administrators, they did nothing. The school never told me what was happening to Nigel. I didn’t find out that he was being harassed until after his death.

At first, I thought that my son’s struggles with being accepted just got to be too much, and that’s why he chose suicide. So when I was on social media and I saw the hashtag #JusticeForNigel, I was confused. Justice for Nigel? My baby died by suicide, I thought. There is no need for “justice.” But that was me speaking as a parent who didn’t know that all of this other stuff had transpired.

I needed to find out what had actually happened. Why did Nigel think that suicide was his only option? What I learned devastated me.

Nigel was constantly tormented with homophobic slurs. His classmates even told him to kill himself for being gay. Instead of intervening, a school administrator told Nigel that being gay was a “choice” and that he needed to live with the consequences.

As I alleged in my legal complaint, when a friend brought Nigel to an administrator’s office, concerned for his well-being, the administrator asked him whether this was “another one of his episodes where life is getting too hard and things get tough and we want to kill ourselves.” The administrator, who is white, also allegedly told him he should dance to “Black people’s music” to make himself feel better.

The author and Nigel on their last Thanksgiving together in 2018,
The author and Nigel on their last Thanksgiving together in 2018,
Courtesy of Camika Shelby

I did not expect to be here today. This is not about pointing fingers at one person. This is about holding everybody accountable. As Nigel’s parent, I had to be the first to be accountable. As parents, we think we’re doing all we can to make sure our kids are OK. But even when you think you’re doing it all, just do more.

Next, I needed to hold the school accountable. Nigel was a child. People say, “They’re just kids, they don’t know what they want, they don’t know about their feelings.” That’s not true. Once a human being is capable of feeling emotions, they’re capable of telling you what it is that they like, what they don’t like, what they want, and what they don’t want.

Disregarding their feelings because they’re a child — that’s our first mistake. We’ve got to do better. Our kids are suppressing so many emotions and thoughts because we’re not allowing them to speak freely as children. It’s not just about holding the school accountable. It’s about holding the administration, the parents, the other students ― everybody accountable.

In 2021, two years after Nigel died, I filed the aforementioned federal lawsuit against the Huntsville City Board of Education for ignoring the anti-gay harassment that Nigel suffered. The lawsuit was about bringing change. It wasn’t about the money ― there is no amount of money in the world that could ever replace Nigel. Instead, this lawsuit was about potentially saving somebody else’s child so they don’t have to go through the horrible tragedy that I have.

Last month, to settle the case, the school district agreed to take important steps to properly respond to anti-LGBTQ harassment in its schools and to improve the school climate for all LGBTQ students.

I hope the changes brought about by this settlement create a safe space for kids of the LGBTQ community to be able to express themselves and be who they are without the fear of being judged, treated differently or discriminated against. I hope it educates school administrators on how to better interact with those kids and gives them a better understanding of the words they should use when they’re having conversations with these children. I hope it gets better for the whole community.

We would be a lot better off if we would understand that just because certain people have different thoughts, feelings, or beliefs than you, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong and you’re right, or vice-versa. I hope that these changes will be a foundation for a better school system, to take better care of our students and kids.

The author and Nigel.
The author and Nigel.
Courtesy of Camika Shelby

However, I know that this is not just about our community or even our state. There have already been over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills ― including “Don’t Say Gay” bills ― introduced in state legislatures in just the first four month of this year. That’s more than all of the bills introduced in 2022 and 10 times as many as all of the bills introduced in 2018. But even one bill is too many.

Our kids ― and the adults these kids hopefully get to grow up to be ― deserve to have the same rights as everyone else, and they deserve to live without fear or harassment. They deserve to live. No other parent should have to go through what I’ve gone through, and I want to do whatever I can to make sure they don’t.

If I could say anything to a young person who is going through what Nigel went through, I’d say:

It’s temporary. Education is important, but the person you are right now in school, you’re not going to be that person in 10 years. The discomfort that you feel is temporary. Don’t let temporary feelings lead you to make a permanent decision that can’t be undone. If you feel you’re not loved in your environment, let’s find another environment. Because you’re worthy.

Hold on. Be strong. It’s temporary.

I believe this was the last task that God gave me as Nigel’s parent ― to try to right the wrong that was done to him. We can’t change what has already happened, so let’s focus on preventing it from happening again.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’d say to Nigel if I had the opportunity to say any last words to him. I would tell him, I love you no matter what you do, or who you love.

I love him even more now than I did before he left.

Camika Shelby is the mother of Nigel Shelby. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and works with organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition to raise awareness around the often-unmet mental health needs of LGBTQ students of color.

If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

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