The New York Times Implausibly Implicates Oklahoma's Bathroom Law in the Death of a Nonbinary Student

Nex Benedict
Nex Benedict | Sue Benedict

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Oklahoma student who identified as nonbinary and preferred they/them pronouns, died on February 8, a day after a fight at Owasso High School. It is unclear whether the injuries that Nex suffered in the fight contributed to their death. But in a story published on Wednesday, The New York Times implicitly blames the altercation on an Oklahoma law that requires students to use restrooms that correspond with the sex "identified on the individual's original birth certificate." Details that the Times omitted cast doubt on that framing, which The Independent also pushed in a story headlined "Oklahoma Banned Trans Students From Bathrooms. Now a Bullied Student Is Dead After a Fight."

Nex, whose given name was Dagny, was biologically female, and the fight happened in a girls' bathroom, where Nex and another student reportedly were assaulted by "three older female students." Although Nex apparently was bullied for identifying as nonbinary, it looks like the location of the fight was incidental.

That is not the impression left by the Times story. "Anti-Trans Policies Draw Scrutiny After 16-Year-Old's Death in Oklahoma," says the headline. The subhead adds that "the student, who did not identify as male or female, according to their family, died a day after an altercation in a school bathroom." The story is illustrated by a photo of transgender rights activists during a 2023 demonstration at the Oklahoma Capitol. "Under state law," the caption notes, "students must use the bathroom that aligns with their birth gender."

Even though that is what Nex was doing at the time of the fight, the second paragraph again cites the law as if it explains the altercation: "Under an Oklahoma law passed in 2022, students must use the bathrooms that align with their birth gender." The next paragraph notes that the fight happened "in a girls' bathroom at Owasso High School" but does not acknowledge that Nex was complying with the bathroom law, perhaps because that would require acknowledging Nex's "birth gender." Although that information is clearly relevant in this context, the story does not mention it at all.

Reporters J. David Goodman and Edgar Sandoval return to the subject of state policy later in the story:

The death renewed scrutiny of anti-transgender laws passed in the state and rhetoric by Oklahoma officials, including the state superintendent for education, Ryan Walters, whose agency has been forceful in trying to bar what it calls "radical gender theory" in schools.

"It's dangerous," Mr. Walters said in a video made by the agency last year. "It puts our girls in jeopardy."

The video highlighted a fight in a bathroom the previous year in which, according to a lawsuit, a female student was "severely" injured in a fight with a transgender student.

Advocates for nonbinary and transgender students said that the state's policy on gender and bathrooms had led to more reports of confrontations in schools.

"That policy and the messaging around it has led to a lot more policing of bathrooms by students," said Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, which advocates for transgender and gay rights. Students who do not present themselves as obviously male or female find themselves questioned by other students, they said. "There is a sense of, 'do you belong in here?'"

The cause of Nex's death remains unclear. The New York Post reports that Sue Benedict, Nex's grandmother and guardian, said Nex fell and hit their head during the bathroom fight.* The Post also quotes the mother of the other victim, who reported seeing the assailants "beating her head across the floor." But according to a statement that the Owasso Police Department posted on Facebook yesterday, preliminary autopsy findings indicate that Nex "did not die as a result of trauma." The statement adds that "toxicology results and other ancillary testing results" are still pending and "the official autopsy report will be available at a later date."

Nex was examined at Bailey Medical Center the day of the fight and released that night. After coming home, Sue Benedict told the Times, Nex "complained of a sore head." The next day, "Nex collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital." In an interview with KWGS, the NPR station in Tulsa, on Tuesday, Benedict complained that "school staff didn't call an ambulance" and that "medical professionals performed a cursory exam before discharging Nex." But Benedict also said "she is not certain yet how much [the] altercation contributed to Nex's death."

Whatever the cause of death, the case raises troubling questions about the response to the fight. "Students were in the restroom for less than two minutes and the physical altercation was broken up by other students who were present in the restroom at the time, along with a staff member who was supervising outside of the restroom," the Owasso Public Schools (OPS) said in a statement issued on Tuesday. "Once the altercation was broken up, all students involved in the altercation walked under their own power to the assistant principal's office and nurse's office."

What happened next? "Physical altercations between students are unacceptable," OPS said. "Any student/s engaging in such action, jeopardizing the safety of others, will receive disciplinary consequences. These consequences can include out-of-school suspension for a first offense. Due to federal privacy laws, we are unable to disclose the exact nature of disciplinary action taken against any student." But Sue Benedict told The Independent that school officials "informed her Nex was being suspended for two weeks."

Under "district protocols," OPS said, "the parents/guardians of students involved in a physical altercation are notified and informed of the option to file a police report should they choose. Should they choose to file a police report, school resource officers are made available to the parents/guardians either at that time or they can schedule an appointment, if they choose, at a later date. These practices were followed during this incident."

The afternoon of the fight, police say, "an Owasso School Resource Officer was assigned to respond to Bailey Medical Center where Nex Benedict was being examined. The School Resource Officer interviewed Nex and their parent concerning the altercation at the Owasso High School. The following morning, the School Resource Officer followed up with the parent." That same day, "Owasso Fire Department medics were dispatched to a medical emergency involving Nex Benedict, who was transported to the St. Francis Pediatric Emergency Room where they later died."

Police said they were "conducting a very active and thorough investigation of the time and events that led up to the death of the student." As of Tuesday, the Post says, "it remained unclear" whether Nex's assailants "would face charges."

More generally, the incident raises questions about Owasso High School's response to  bullying. An OPS spokesman told the Times that "students who identified as transgender or nonbinary would be treated 'with dignity and respect, just like all students.'" But Sue Benedict said Nex had been repeatedly harassed by other students at school. "The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence," the family said in a statement, "and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy."

Did Oklahoma's policies encourage such violence? Goodman and Sandoval clearly think so. "In addition to the bathroom law," they note, "Oklahoma passed a ban on gender-transition care for minors last year. And in 2022, the state was among the first in the nation to explicitly prohibit residents from using gender neutral markers on their birth certificates." They also think it is relevant to note that "the state education agency" recently appointed "Chaya Raichik, who runs Libs of TikTok, an account on X that has posted anti-gay and anti-transgender content, to serve on the agency's Library Media Advisory Committee, which reviews the appropriateness of school library content."

The implication is that state policies are reinforcing the intolerance from which Nex suffered. Maybe. But anyone who has attended high school can testify that teenagers do not need official encouragement to pick on students they see as different. And in this case, the bathroom law that the Times repeatedly highlights seems like a red herring.

*CORRECTION: This sentence has been revised to reflect updated information about Sue Benedict's relationship to Nex.

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