Criticism Mounts for Oklahoma Officials after Nonbinary Teen Dies Following School Altercation

On the 7th of February, a nonbinary high school student at Owasso High School in Oklahoma experienced a confrontation in a girls’ bathroom. The following day, Nex Benedict, who preferred they/them pronouns and had ancestral ties to the Choctaw Nation, was pronounced deceased at a local hospital.

About fourteen days later, after numerous social media posts from smaller LGBTQ publications, The Independent’s U.S. edition featured an interview with Sue Benedict, Nex’s mother, who disclosed that Nex had been subjected to months of bullying at school due to their gender identity. Benedict recounted that Nex informed her of being involved in a scuffle in the bathroom with three older girls, alongside another transgender student, and hitting their head on the floor.

In the subsequent 24 hours following the interview’s release, numerous media outlets commenced delving into an array of often conflicting statements from school authorities, law enforcement, and acquaintances of the Benedicts.

Although it may take an extended period to establish the precise circumstances, advocates assert a common understanding: the legislative onslaught on LGBTQ rights in Oklahoma over the last couple of years — including the enactment of a bathroom bill in 2022 that compelled Nex into an environment deemed hazardous for transgender youth — has compelled students to navigate through increasingly hostile school settings.

Upon being summoned to the school premises on the afternoon of February 7, Benedict was informed that Nex had been suspended for a duration of two weeks. The teenager exhibited evident bruises and scratches on their face and head. Benedict drove Nex to a hospital seeking assistance in filing a police report, and she mentioned that the school should have contacted both emergency medical services and law enforcement.

In a subsequent statement released after the news publication, Owasso Public Schools mentioned that Nex had been examined by the school nurse, and Benedict was advised to have them seen at a medical facility. The other students involved did not require medical attention, and according to district policy, parents of students engaged in altercations were given the option to file a police report.

Authorities from the Owasso Police Department indicated this week that preliminary autopsy findings revealed Nex’s death was not attributable to “trauma,” yet they also mentioned in a search warrant filed on Wednesday suspicion of foul play. A police representative informed NBC that footage from a school hallway camera captured Nex before and after the incident, though details of the video’s content at the time of publication were undisclosed.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona condemned the incident on social media, urging for safer school environments.

I can’t put into words the grief that I feel for Nex, their family, and their community. As an educator and father, I’m devastated. Violence has no place in school. It is our responsibility to protect all students by creating spaces where they feel safe to be their true selves.

— Secretary Miguel Cardona (@SecCardona) February 21, 2024

The occurrence of the teenager’s demise adds to a series of events in Oklahoma, where at least four laws have been implemented in the past two years curtailing the rights of LGBTQ youth. The 2022 bathroom statute mandates students to utilize the restroom corresponding to their assigned birth sex, necessitates schools to enforce disciplinary measures for non-compliance, and promotes a 5% reduction in state funding for the subsequent fiscal period for districts failing to implement consequences.

In 2022, Chaya Raichik, affiliated with the far-right X account Libs of TikTok, shared a video of one of Nex’s instructors expressing solidarity with LGBTQ students. “If your parents don’t love and accept you for who you are this Christmas, f***,” former eighth-grade teacher Tyler Wrynn articulated in his TikTok post. Following the dissemination of the post, the teacher resigned after gaining considerable attention amid certain parental factions due to his pro-LGBTQ stance.

Last August, Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters faced criticism for retweeting a Libs of TikTok post concerning a Tulsa librarian blamed for a bomb threat targeting the elementary school she was associated with. Subsequently, Walters appointed Raichik to a state committee tasked with reviewing school library materials for content deemed “pornographic” or “woke,” which he asserted was part of an initiative to enhance school safety. This week, Raichik accused “leftists” of politicizing Nex’s passing.

Statistics from the Williams Institute at UCLA indicate an approximate total of 2,000 transgender youth in Oklahoma.

Even though the precise circumstances within Owasso High School’s restroom may remain unresolved, Nex’s untimely death has reignited discussions regarding the repercussions of a succession of “antagonistic” laws on the safety of queer students and the schools’ capacity or willingness to safeguard their well-being, highlights Cait Smith, the director of LGBTQI+ policy at the Center for American Progress. Of the 667 bills presented nationwide in 2023 aiming to limit rights based on sexual orientation or gender identity, 63% were specifically directed towards young individuals.

“There is a broader issue at play here, a larger pattern that necessitates dialogue,” emphasizes Smith. “These are often referred to as hostile school climate bills. Schools in states where such laws are enacted are grappling with regulations that hinder their ability to establish secure and validating school environments — let alone environments that foster student well-being and academic success.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a case in 2021 supporting students’ rights to utilize restrooms aligning with their identity, the subject of trans bathroom utilization has persistently faced hurdles in legislative settings and judicial circles. Notably, Smith mentions that last year witnessed the passage of at least seven bills restraining trans restroom access, with five of these bills school-centric.

Advocates of restroom bans advocate their necessity in defending cisgender females from potential assault by transgender individuals.

GLSEN

Prior to the ongoing ideological clash, LGBTQ students harbored apprehensions regarding inadequately supervised school areas like locker rooms, hallways, and cafeterias. According to a 2021 survey conducted on LGBTQ youth experiences, when the surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation was commencing, 68% of queer students expressed feeling unsafe at school. Restrooms were identified as the primary areas avoided, with 45% indicating reluctance in utilizing restroom facilities.

A documented link by the American Medical Association has established a correlation between restricted bathroom access and augmented mental and physical health challenges among transgender youth and adults. Approximately 6 in 10 individuals abstain from using public restrooms due to apprehensions, and 14% admitted to encountering assaults in bathrooms.

In Oklahoma, the percentage of students reporting derogatory comments from educators regarding sexual orientation increased twofold between 2019 and 2021, reaching 69%. The proportion of students encountering disparaging remarks from adults concerning trans individuals jumped from 46% to 80% in that period. Only 1% reported an absence of slurs from classmates.

Fourteen percent disclosed experiencing physical abuse in school due to their sexual orientation, while 13% encountered such abuse over gender expression. Over half acknowledged refraining from reporting the harassment or violence to school administrators, of which only 16% of LGBTQ students deemed supportive. Merely 6% believed their school’s anti-bullying policies encompassed sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ACLU of Oklahoma has embarked on litigation against state officials and four school districts, citing the discriminatory nature of the bathroom legislation and its violation of students’ educational rights. The case awaits resolution in federal court.

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