Family, friends of Nex Benedict remember Owasso teen: 'We are incredibly sad'

An Owasso teen whose death has drawn international attention was bullied because of their gender identity, friends of the teen told an advocacy group, according to that organization’s executive director.

Family members also confirmed Nex Benedict used the pronouns they and them. The 16-year-old was injured in an altercation inside an Owasso High School bathroom Feb. 7 and died the next day.

Police are investigating what led up to the incident. It remains unclear whether or not Nex was targeted because of their gender identity. Medical examiners haven’t disclosed their complete findings, but police said on Wednesday that an autopsy determined Nex did not die as a result of trauma.

In Nex's obituary, their family recounted that they loved to draw, read and play Ark and Minecraft.

“They were a wonderful child, and they were important to us in ways that are really difficult to articulate at this time,” said Malia Pila, the teen’s sister, in a brief conversation with The Oklahoman. “They were really great, and we are incredibly sad.”

More: Who attacked Nex Benedict? Will charges be filed? What we know about investigation process

Owasso student Nex Benedict
Owasso student Nex Benedict

Questions surrounding Nex Benedict's death spread on social media

Questions and grief over Nex’s death — at a time when debates over gender and sexuality are becoming increasingly common at school board meetings and legislative hearings nationwide — have spread far beyond Oklahoma.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on the social media site X that he was devastated after learning about Nex's passing.

“Violence has no place in our school,” Cardona said in a post Wednesday. “It is our responsibility to protect all students by creating spaces where they feel safe to be their true selves.”

More: Officials speak out after Oklahoma student dies: 'Nex should still be alive'

Nicole McAfee, who leads Freedom Oklahoma, said her organization has been working with some of Nex’s friends and others in Owasso as they process their grief over Nex’s death. The group is focused on making Oklahoma a safer place for people of all genders and sexualities.

McAfee, whose pronouns are she/her and they/them, said none of Nex’s friends currently felt comfortable being quoted directly in news stories. But McAfee said the friends have told them Nex was gender expansive — using they/them pronouns with some people and he/him pronouns with those closest to him.

Other students made fun of Nex because of it, friends told McAfee’s group.

“Nex had been bullied for their gender identity for well over a year,” McAfee said.

Jordan Korphage, a spokesman for the school district, did not respond to questions about whether the school had received prior reports of bullying involving Nex. He also would not say what grade Nex was enrolled in or whether the school had any groups aimed at supporting students of various gender and sexual identities.

McAfee said many 2SLGBTQ+ children in Oklahoma have described facing growing hostility at school in recent years. They said they had heard concerns in the past about student safety at Owasso schools, particularly after a teacher who was viewed as an advocate for 2SLGBTQ+ students left the district in 2022. The teacher has said he was harassed after he was criticized by Libs of TikTok, a far-right social media platform.

Little information provided by Owasso police, school officials

In a statement issued Wednesday, Nex's family said they believed Nex was attacked at school, a place they should have been safe. They asked for privacy as they continued to grieve Nex.

"The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy," the family said in a statement issued by its attorney.

Owasso police and school officials have released sparse details about what happened, citing privacy laws and the ongoing investigation. The information void has added fuel to a torrent of online speculation and criticism, especially over the lack of charges filed in the case.

Investigators have said they plan to spend several more days talking to students and school employees before they share their findings to prosecutors. They also are waiting on more information from the state medical examiner’s office, including a toxicology report, said Lt. Nick Boatman, a spokesman for Owasso Police.

He declined to release the incident report about the altercation, citing the ongoing investigation. He also said privacy laws limit police from disclosing information about cases involving children. All students who were involved in the altercation are younger than 18, Boatman said.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said his office does not become involved in any criminal case until investigators submit reports. Based on that information, prosecutors will then decide whether to file charges and what those charges will be, he said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Nex Benedict death: Family, friends mourn while questions remain