Education Department launching an investigation into death of Nex Benedict

(The Hill) — The Department of Education said Friday that it is opening an investigation into the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Oklahoma high school student who died one day after getting into a fight in the girls bathroom at school, where they were allegedly bullied for months over their gender identity.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights notified the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) of the investigation, which it said was opened in response to a letter sent by the LGBTQ rights organization that alleged Nex’s school district, Owasso Public Schools, failed to respond appropriately to the sex-based harassment that may have contributed to Nex’s death.

HRC President Kelley Robinson called for federal investigations into the teenager’s passing in letters sent on Feb. 21 to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“We are deeply concerned about the failure of Owasso High School to address documented instances of bullying, violence, and harassment against Nex, which occurred in earnest over the course of the previous school year and were in violation of Nex’s rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972,” Robinson wrote in her letter to Cardona.

“We therefore urge the Department to urgently investigate whether Owasso High School unlawfully failed to address the discrimination and harassment to which Nex was subjected,” she continued. “In addition, we call upon the Department to conduct a Title IX compliance investigation for Owasso High School.”

The organization’s calls for federal investigations were amplified by leading LGBTQ figures and lawmakers including Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.).

Key details surrounding Nex’s death and identity are still unclear. Nex’s mother, Sue Benedict, told The Independent that Nex “did not see themselves as male or female. Nex saw themselves right down the middle.”

Friends of Nex told NBC News last week that Nex was transgender and primarily went by he/him pronouns at school but also used they/them pronouns.

A police investigation is still ongoing. Local authorities said last week they have not ruled out the fight as a possible cause of Nex’s death.

The incident has cast a spotlight on Oklahoma, which currently leads the nation in anti-LGBTQ legislation filed this year, according to the ACLU. Advocacy groups and lawmakers following initial reports of Nex’s death said hateful rhetoric and laws that target LGBTQ individuals were to blame.

The tragedy has also put a national focus on Oklahoma schools and state education officials.

More than 350 LGBTQ and civil rights organizations — including the HRC — this week called for the removal of the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who has espoused anti-LGBTQ views. Walters in January appointed Chaya Raichik — the conservative activist behind Libs of TikTok, whose posts often target LGBTQ people — to a state library advisory board.

A former teacher at Nex’s high school.resigned last year after he was featured in one of Raichik’s posts. Sue Benedict told The Independent that Nex was upset about the departure of the teacher, who was targeted for affirming LGBTQ students.

“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 Friday in a statement.

“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,” she added.

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