Questions about investigation into Owasso High School remain after district board meeting

Questions about the U.S. Department of Education's investigation into civil rights concerns at Owasso High School went unanswered this week during the district's board of education meeting where neither the administration nor the board addressed the allegations.

The investigation will look into allegations that Owasso Public Schools failed to adequately address reports of sex-based harassment after Nex Benedict, a gender-expansive student at the school, died after sustaining injuries in an on-campus altercation.

A student holds a sign in February at Owasso High School. Students and community members gathered for peaceful demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict, calling on school and state officials to better protect LGBTQ+ students.
A student holds a sign in February at Owasso High School. Students and community members gathered for peaceful demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict, calling on school and state officials to better protect LGBTQ+ students.

Benedict, 16, died in February the day after sustaining injuries in an altercation on school grounds. News of the high school sophomore's death has generated widespread attention, in part because of the student's gender identity and claims of bullying that led up to the fight.

Monday's meeting agenda did not contain items concerning Benedict's death and the investigation surrounding it. However, six people spoke during the 15-minute public input portion about the investigation and their own experiences with bullying at Owasso schools. About 70 people attended the meeting, according to the Owasso Reporter.

Owasso Public Schools superintendent booed after addressing Nex Benedict's death

Students held a demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict in February at Owasso High School.
Students held a demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict in February at Owasso High School.

On Monday, Margaret Coates, superintendent of Owasso Public Schools, was booed by members in the audience during the district's board of education meeting after she spoke about Benedict's death.

Coates said the school community ensures every student feels a sense of safety and belonging, adding that the district's focus is on the well-being of its staff and students.

She also said the district is cooperating with local and federal officials, then thanked law enforcement, business leaders, chamber partners and faith leaders for supporting Owasso High School.

"The solidarity, compassion and kindness exhibited by our students, teachers, parents, central office staff and board members has been a source of strength for myself and many others," Coates said.

An anti bully sign is pictured Feb. 26 at Owasso High School where students and community members gathered for peaceful demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict, calling on school and state officials to better protect LGBTQ+ students.
An anti bully sign is pictured Feb. 26 at Owasso High School where students and community members gathered for peaceful demonstration in honor of Nex Benedict, calling on school and state officials to better protect LGBTQ+ students.

What to expect from the US Department of Education's investigation

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigates potential civil rights violations in publicly funded schools.

The notice of the investigation was first published by the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based group, which lobbies on behalf of LGBTQ+ rights, which lodged the complaint. Its president, Kelley Robinson, wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Feb. 21 and requested the inquiry “to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Nex’s tragic death.”

Robinson also asked federal school officials to investigate Oklahoma schools Superintendent Ryan Walters, the most vocal supporter of the state’s push to roll out anti-trans rules in school.

According to an analysis of the investigation from Rachel Perera, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, the bar for the office to investigate a civil rights complaint is low and accessible for community members, meaning opened investigations shouldn't be read into too deeply.

Perera's analysis suggests that the Office of Civil Rights' investigation could address a potentially broad pattern of civil rights abuses at Owasso High School. This means the investigation could address conditions that might've led to the harassment and bullying Benedict experienced.

Perera said because the office is small and inadequately funded, the investigation could take years.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Owasso investigation after Nex Benedict: What to expect