Federal investigation opens into Owasso Public Schools after death of Nex Benedict

Nex Benedict killed Oklahoma nonbinary student beaten classmates bathroom Owasso High School
Nex Benedict killed Oklahoma nonbinary student beaten classmates bathroom Owasso High School

In response to a formal complaint the Human Rights Campaign lodged last week regarding the handling of sex-based harassment incidents, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has initiated an investigation into Owasso Public Schools. The investigation, announced late Friday, aims to address the Oklahoma school district’s response to harassment that may have contributed to the tragic death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student of Choctaw heritage.

HRC President Kelley Robinson spearheaded the complaint to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona last week, urging the department in a letter to use its enforcement mechanisms to prevent future tragedies and hold those responsible for Benedict’s death accountable. “Nex’s family, community, and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss,” Robinson said in a press release announcing the investigation. “We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation—we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment, and discrimination.”

The Department of Education’s letter to Robinson highlights the serious nature of the allegations against Owasso Public Schools, indicating a thorough examination of whether the district failed to appropriately respond to reported harassment, in line with Title IX, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

This federal investigation follows a distressing incident in which Benedict was reportedly assaulted by three older students in a school restroom, leading to widespread outcry over the safety and treatment of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive students within the education system. Benedict died the day after the incident, but the cause of the youth's death remains undetermined. Despite Owasso Public Schools’ claims of following district protocols and intervention by students and staff during the altercation, the community, and Benedict’s family seek accountability and substantive action to prevent similar incidents.

Body camera footage from the Owasso Police Department revealed a conversation between Nex and School Resource Officer Caleb Thompson, providing critical context to the altercation. Nex explained that the conflict arose “because of the way that we dressed,” leading to bullying. Nex recounted being jumped by three girls after retaliating against their harassment by squirting water at them. Officer Thompson’s response in the footage highlighted the complex dynamics of school bullying, suggesting that Nex’s defensive action could be perceived as part of a “mutual fight,” thereby complicating the legal implications of the altercation.

Amid the investigation and heightened public scrutiny, Robinson has also reached out to Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting a Department of Justice investigation into Benedict’s death, and to Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District, advocating for the implementation of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program to foster an inclusive and safe environment for LGBTQ+ students.

In addition to local advocacy groups and HRC, GLAAD had a team on the ground in Oklahoma to ensure that Benedict’s story was accurately represented in the media.

Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, expressed his gratitude for the probe.

“I am grateful to the Department of Education for opening up an investigation into Owasso Public Schools,” Pocan said in a statement. “Nex Benedict deserved to go to school without fear of bullying and should be alive today. No investigation will ever be able to make up for the loss of Nex’s life, but this investigation is an important step toward ensuring that all students in Owasso Public Schools can learn free from discrimination or harassment. As this investigation continues, we can all honor Nex’s life by fighting against the wave of anti-trans bills and rhetoric sweeping the country.”

The investigation by the OCR signifies a critical step toward addressing systemic issues related to bullying, harassment, and discrimination in schools, reflecting a broader effort to ensure a safe and supportive educational landscape for all students, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

The heart of this investigation centers around the events leading to the death of Nex Benedict, who was initially identified as nonbinary, utilizing they/them pronouns. However, during a vigil held in his memory, friends clarified that Nex preferred he/him pronouns and identified as transgender.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comments from Rep. Mark Pocan.