Nex Benedict’s death shines spotlight on Oklahoma schools

Nex Benedict’s death shines spotlight on Oklahoma schools
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The death of an LGBTQ Oklahoma student has put a national focus on state officials and local schools there as advocates say anti-LGBTQ measures and rhetoric have created an environment ripe for such a tragedy.

Ryan Walters, the Oklahoma state schools superintendent, is doubling down in defense of his policies regarding LGBTQ students as Nex Benedict, 16, is mourned across the country after dying the day after a school fight.

While their cause of death is unknown, advocates say a transparent investigation is needed and that students like Benedict need support, not discrimination, from officials.

“When I first heard the news it was a mixture of … there’s a lot of raw emotions. I was angry, of course, because school is really supposed to be a safe space for students, and too often in my organization we hear stories from students on how unsafe they feel in schools,” said Cameron Bartosiewicz, president of the Youth Pride Association.

“And it really really upsets me that Nex Benedict had to really experience that and that was their last experience on this Earth was such cruelty,” Bartosiewicz added.

Benedict died Feb. 8, a day after getting into an altercation with girls in a bathroom at Owasso High School. Their head apparently struck the ground during the fight, and all involved in the incident were evaluated by the school nurse.

Benedict was checked out at a medical center the same day and released but reportedly collapsed at home the following day.

Body camera footage released by the police shows Benedict describing the fight, with one of their friends saying they blacked out during the fight.

“They got my legs out from under me and got me on the ground and started beating the shit out of me,” Benedict told the officer. A coroner has determined Benedict’s death was not from “trauma,” but the official cause of death has not been released.

“I hope that we will see an independent investigation. I hope that Nex’s indigenous identity will be recognized … and the fact that they were both beaten and died on tribal land, in that that will mean resources from the FBI and [Department of Justice] into finding out what happened in this scenario,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma.

“I hope that we will see an independent autopsy as well given the long history of very politically convenient reports that have come out of the Oklahoma office,” McAfee added.

GLAAD is highlighting the bevy of anti-LGBTQ laws and policies that have come out of Oklahoma in recent years, including from Walters and Gov. Kevin Stitt (R).

The group points to moves from Walters, including a rule change that makes it so schools cannot change the gender or sex designation of students on their records and the recent appointment of Chaya Raichik, who runs the controversial “Libs of TikTok” account, to the Library Media Advisory Committee at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Previously, Raichik’s account posted a video from an Owasso High teacher declaring, “If your parents don’t accept you for who you are, f— them. I’m your parents now.” The teacher resigned shortly after the video was posted on the Libs of TikTok page in 2022.

A former teacher from Norman Public Schools is suing Walters after he targeted her during his campaign for office after she posted a QR code to an online library that was offering free access to books that were getting banned, according to local outlet KOSU. Summer Boismier’s attorney says in the lawsuit that she “received numerous threatening messages and harassment that referenced the allegations made by Walters either explicitly or in substance.”

And Stitt, GLAAD points out, signed a bill mandating that students use the bathrooms and sports teams at school that correspond with their biological sex at birth.

“Ryan Walters is supposed to be a role model and people look up to see what he’s doing, and when he is denigrating LGBTQ+ students, that sends a very clear message about what kind of behavior is acceptable, what kind of conduct is acceptable, what kind of discourse is acceptable,” said Laurel Powell, director of communications and programs for Human Rights Campaign.

“And for as many wonderful teachers and principals and administrators exist in schools in Oklahoma and around the country. That is a powerful message that kids the kids are seeing, and that their parents are seeing, and it builds this culture that puts students at risk,” Powell added.

Walters has doubled down on his rhetoric and emphasizes it is not clear why the fight happened and whether Benedict’s LGBTQ identity was a factor in their death.

“The safety and security of our students is my top priority as well as the first responsibility of Oklahoma schools. I mourn the loss of our student in Owasso and pray for God’s comfort for the family and the entire Owasso community,” Walters said in a statement to The Hill. “We have witnessed the radical left and their accomplices in the media use the tragic death of a student to push a political agenda and a false narrative. It is despicable and harms our students and communities. I will continue to fight for parents and will never back down to the woke mob.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Walters said that while “You always treat individuals with dignity or respect, because they’re made in God’s image,” that “doesn’t change truth.”

“There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us,” he said.

A study in 2022 found that 1 in 20 young Americans identified as either nonbinary or transgender.

Stitt’s office did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Memorials and vigils have been held for Benedict across the country, including in Boston, New York, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

“In the last week for our organization, it has meant both an outpouring of support from communities across the country and it has also meant more outreach from and to LGBTQ+, youth, their parents and school staff who are increasingly worried about safety in schools,” McAfee said, adding that in response in Oklahoma, “we could see schools take bold action, including not implementing single sex bathroom restrictions.”

“I think that we’re definitely hearing concerns across the state from educators and parents about how worried they are that all the conditions exist for this scenario to be repeated in any other school,” McAfee said.

“We’ve seen Oklahoma school districts in the past choose to fight back against policies that they believed caused harm to their students, in most recent examples, several schools that fought back on a policy that wouldn’t have allowed for mask mandates in the earliest portion of the COVID-19 crisis,” McAfee said. “And I think that we could see schools band together to fight the single bathroom restrictions … [and] we could see schools refuse to implement the forced outing policies.”

—Updated at 5:28 p.m.

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