Outrage after Oklahoma education superintendent reframes Nex Benedict’s death without naming the teen

Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters Dead Transgender Two Spirit bullied teen nex benedict
Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters Dead Transgender Two Spirit bullied teen nex benedict

Amid escalating tensions and controversies surrounding LGBTQ+ rights in Oklahoma’s education system, state Superintendent Ryan Walters’s comments at a Thursday Board of Education meeting have sparked anger from LGBTQ+ rights groups.

His handling of the tragic situation involving Nex Benedict, a transgender student from Owasso High School who died by suicide after being bullied and assaulted in February, has been a focal point of criticism. The environment leading up to and during the board meeting was fraught with tension.

During the meeting, Walters expressed sorrow over the situation but refrained from directly naming Benedict, which drew criticism from people in the audience. He said that he was “heartbroken” for the family.

However, Walters quickly started criticizing those he accused of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

“At the time, we had radical left-wing activists who were aided by the fake news media who made outrageous and unfounded claims on the situation from the beginning. These radical groups lied, intentionally so, to push a political narrative.”

He claimed that conservatives in Oklahoma were under attack.

“They wanted to use the death of a child to support a political agenda, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting, and you are going to hear these groups, this woke mob, continue to push an agenda and lie to further the most radical agenda this country has ever seen.”

Walters defended his stance against what he described as a “woke mob”: “I will never back down to a woke mob. I will never lie to our kids or allow a radical agenda to be forced on our kids.”

Walters has said that there were “not multiple genders” and that Oklahoma’s schools would not perpetuate what he considers a lie that transgender and nonbinary people exist.

Walters has been a divisive figure. In January, his decision to appoint Chaya Raichik, the far-right extremist behind the anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok account, to a state board overseeing library materials in public schools raised eyebrows. This move, coupled with his policies and rhetoric, has been criticized for fostering a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma.

A recent Change Research survey revealed profound disapproval among Oklahoma voters towards Walters, with 55 percent disapproving of his performance. With 61 percent of voters doubting Walters as a good role model for students, the survey highlights a deepening crisis of confidence in his ability to lead the state’s education system effectively.

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, delivered a compelling address to the board, rejecting the notion of a moment of silence for Benedict.

“I think you all have been silent enough for all of us,” they said. McAfee outlined a “radical agenda” focused on the safety and dignity of Two-Spirit, transgender, and gender nonconforming children, directly criticizing Walters for his silence on Benedict’s death, noting, “Nex Benedict, a name Ryan Walters, that you still have not said out loud.” They detailed the harrowing findings from Benedict’s autopsy, highlighting the physical consequences of the policies enacted by the board.

McAfee also called for urgent action to repeal harmful bathroom policies and rules that endanger queer and trans students, emphasizing, “You can repeal the gender discrimination based single-sex bathroom rules. You can repeal administrative rules you passed last spring that force school staff to out queer and trans students, even when they know it is life-threatening.” Concluding their plea, McAfee underscored the importance of immediate, tangible action to protect students across Oklahoma, reminding the board of their responsibility.“ It is action that Nex deserved and we can’t get Nex back. But there are just as many students and schools across the state who need you to do something, and they need you to do it now,” McAfee said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation into the school’s response to bullying incidents leading to Benedict’s death. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released a full autopsy report on Wednesday, which concluded that Benedict’s death was a suicide resulting from the combined toxicity of an antihistamine and a common depression medication. The local prosecutor declined to file criminal charges in the case.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, responded to Walters’ remarks in a statement to The Advocate.

“It is outrageous to hear Ryan Walters say he will never ‘lie to’ or ‘force a radical agenda on’ Oklahoma students, considering that he spends his days cultivating a climate of fear and disinformation. The radical agenda is Walters’ — it thrives every day under his leadership and makes school a dangerous place for all students,” Ellis said.

She emphasized the need for an independent investigation into Benedict’s death “as well as an investigation into Oklahoma public schools to uncover how and why anti-LGBTQ animus reigns supreme. Ryan Walters and his cronies must be held accountable for the climate of fear and disinformation they are hell-bent on pushing.”

Laurel Powell of the Human Rights Campaign highlighted the community’s frustration in a statement to The Advocate, noting that opposition to Walters comes from his constituents.

“Every single person allowed to speak at [the] Board of Education meeting — all Oklahomans or parents with kids in Oklahoma schools— told Ryan Walters to his face that he has failed at his job and is harming Oklahoma students,” Powell said. “They have clearly had enough of his cruelty and his incompetence, both of which were on full display during the meeting. His opposition is not a straw man ‘woke mob,’ but the people he pretends to serve. Ryan Walters must be removed.”