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Trans rights

Oklahoma banned trans students from bathrooms. Now Nex Benedict is dead after a fight at school

Nex Benedict died one day after a fight in a school bathroom. Their mother Sue Benedict tells Bevan Hurley that the gender fluid teenager endured more than a year of abuse simply for being who they were

Tuesday 20 February 2024 05:24 GMT
<p>Nex Benedict, 16, died one day after being assaulted in a bathroom at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, police say</p>

Nex Benedict, 16, died one day after being assaulted in a bathroom at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, police say

Whenever Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict was bullied at school for being transgender, their mother Sue Benedict would encourage the 16-year-old to rise above their tormentors.

“I said ‘you’ve got to be strong and look the other way, because these people don’t know who you are’,” Ms Benedict told The Independent in a phone interview.

“I didn’t know how bad it had gotten.”

The bullying had started in earnest at the beginning of the 2023 school year, a few months after Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt signed a bill that required public school students to use bathrooms that matched the sex listed on their birth certificates.

A few weeks ago, on 7 February, the bullying allegedly erupted in violence when Nex suffered severe head injuries during a “physical altercation” at Owasso High School, according to the Owasso Police Department.

Sue Benedict told The Independent she was called to the school that day to find Nex badly beaten with bruises over their face and eyes, and with scratches on the back of their head.

Nex told her that they and another transgender student at Owasso High School had been in a fight with three older girls in a girls bathroom. Nex was knocked to the ground during the fight and hit their head on the floor, according to their mother.

Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says

Ms Benedict said she was furious that the school had failed to call an ambulance or the police. She said the school then informed her Nex was being suspended for two weeks.

She took Nex to the Bailey Medical Center in Owasso for treatment. They spoke to a police school resource officer at the medical facility and were discharged.

That night, Nex went to bed with a sore head and eventually fell asleep while listening to music, Ms Benedict said.

On the afternoon of 8 February, Nex was getting ready to go to Tulsa with Ms Benedict for an appointment when they collapsed in the family living room.

Ms Benedict called an ambulance, and Owasso Fire Department medics arrived to find Nex had stopped breathing. Nex was taken to the St. Francis Pediatric Emergency Room where they were later declared dead.

In a statement, the Owasso Police Department said they were “conducting a very active and thorough investigation of the time and events that led up to the death of the student”.

Owasso PD spokesperson Nick Boatman told The Independent that police were awaiting the results of toxicology and autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office before determining whether anyone will be charged.

Mr Boatman said “all charges will be on the table” once a cause of death was confirmed.

In an update on Tuesday 20 February, Mr Boatman said detectives were interviewing school staff and students and would be submitting their investigation to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution review.

Owasso police issued a subsequent statement on 21 February to say that an autopsy indicated that Nex had not died as a result of trauma.

“While the investigation continues into the altercation, preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office is that a complete autopsy was performed and indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma,” police said.

The Benedict family later released a statement through their lawyers saying they would conduct an independent investigation into Nex’s death.

The family said that the facts surrounding Nex’s death, some of which have not been released publicly, were “troubling at best”.

An Owasso Public Schools spokesperson declined to provide information about the assault or the school’s response when contacted by The Independent, citing the active police investigation.

Anti-trans social media influencer Chaya Raichik, who runs the Libs of TikTok, frequently posts inflammatory videos, LGBTQ advocates say

LGBTQ advocacy groups have described Nex’s death as a “hate crime”. They refer to the growing anti-LGBTQ sentiment being faced by young people, referring to the “hateful rhetoric spewed by leaders in our state” and the growing platform they have given the Libs of TikTok account run by far-right social media influencer Chaya Raichik.

Ms Raichik said: “Nex’s death is a tragedy. We should be focusing on supporting Nex’s family and getting to the bottom of what happened. Unfortunately, certain extremist groups and the media have tried to exploit this tragedy to attack me and my reporting, but I cannot—and will not—stop standing up against the sexualization of kids.”

Ms Raichik, a New York-based former real estate agent, became a cause celebre among conservatives for using her Libs of TikTok account to post edited, anti-trans videos that target public school teachers and librarians.

A middle school teacher who Nex had greatly admired resigned in 2022 after they were featured in one of Ms Raichik’s posts.

Ms Raichik did not initially respond to a request for comment by The Independent. On X, she denied any link to the death and said she was unjustly being blamed for a murder.

‘When you’re old school, you don’t always understand it’

Like many parents, Sue Benedict and her husband Walter at times struggled to understand the nuances of Nex’s gender fluidity.

Ms Benedict is Nex’s biological grandmother, and raised them since they were two months old along with her five other children. She formally adopted Nex a few years ago.

She told The Independent that Nex was always understanding if she used an incorrect pronoun, or called Nex by their birth name.

“Nex did not see themselves as male or female,” Ms Benedict said. “Nex saw themselves right down the middle. I was still learning about it, Nex was teaching me that.”

“When you’re old school, you don’t always understand it,” her husband Walter told The Independent.

“But it would be very boring if we were all the same. It’s on the inside that matters the most.”

Nex Benedict with their cat Zeus. The straight-A student was ‘going places’, their mother said

The family, who trace part of their roots to the Choctaw Nation, encouraged open discussions about questions of gender and identity.

“I was very open with my children to be who and what they thought was best,” Ms Benedict said.

“They could talk to me about anything, as long as that respect goes both ways. A child needs to figure out who they are and what they want to be, and you cannot force it upon them.”

Nex’s sister Malia Pila, who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, told The Independent in an interview that Nex’s fluid gender identity “was not an issue nor anything that anybody cared about” within the family.

Nex was a straight-A student who enjoyed drawing, reading, playing video games Ark and Minecraft, and was devoted to their cat Zeus, Ms Benedict said.

“I was so proud of Nex. They were going some place, they were so free,” she said.

In April 2022, Owasso High School teacher Tyler Wrynn was featured in a surreptitiously filmed Libs of TikTok post telling students: “If your parents don’t accept you for who you are, f*** them.”

Former Owasso student reacts to Nex Benedict’s death

The incident sparked a backlash in the small Oklahoma city of 40,000 residents, and Mr Wrynn resigned from the Owasso Public Schools system.

“Nex was very angry about it,” Ms Benedict said. Ms Benedict said that teachers who encourage debate about gender issues were not promoting sexualised content.

“They’re allowing the students to be who they are.”

Ms Benedict said she first became aware that Nex was being bullied at school in early 2023.

“They’d go straight to their room and put it on their radio, and I’d say ‘OK you gotta decompress for a little bit, and then come out and talk about it’.”

Ms Benedict said she remains furious at the school for failing to call police or seek medical attention for Nex, and wants to see the children who allegedly assaulted Nex punished.

“So many people push kids to be one thing, and you’ve got to let them find themselves and be who they should be,” Ms Benedict said.

“Society has got to see them as they are. Accept them and go on, because we are all people.”

‘Woke ideology’

Last August, a Libs of TikTok post showing an edited video critical of a public school librarian in Tulsa reportedly led to several consecutive days of bomb threats to schools in the district.

Some news outlets drew links between Ms Raichik’s posts and the threats. A recent NBC News investigation said Ms Raichik’s posts were linked to nearly three dozen threats made towards schools, libraries, hospitals and businesses across 16 states.

“Political activists and media have been falsely accusing me of inciting violence for the simple act of reporting what’s going on in America’s schools,” Ms Raichik said. “Taken to its logical conclusion, if truthfully reporting on the sexualization of kids at school is incitement to violence, then that is the end of free speech in America, which is what many critics seem to want.”

Last month, Oklahoma’s Republican superintendent of public schools Ryan Walters appointed Ms Raichik to the state’s library advisory committee.

Mr Walters has not commented publicly on Nex’s death. He put out a video on X on President’s Day, decrying “radical woke college professors” for placing Donald Trump at the bottom of a list of the United States’ greatest presidents.

“We judge presidents by outcomes not woke ideology,” he said

Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ advocacy group, blamed Oklahoman lawmakers and Ms Raichik for promoting bigotry and intolerance towards trans students after Nex’s death.

The group said that Ms Raichik “continues to use her platform in a way that leads others to threaten real harm at Oklahoma kids”.

“We want to be clear, whether Nex died as a direct result of injuries sustained in the brutal hate-motivated attack at school or not, Nex’s death is a result of being the target of physical and emotional harm because of who Nex was,” the group wrote.

‘Nex had a light in them that was so big’

Since Nex’s death, Ms Benedict said she had barely slept and been “walking in a blur”.

When it came time to place an obituary, Ms Benedict said she had provided Nex’s birth name by accident. This has led to some media coverage of Nex’s death using their birth name, or dead name.

“When you are going through something like this and you lose a child, you’re not thinking right. We’re getting a headstone done and Nex will be on there,” she said.

Nex’s funeral was held at the Mowery Funeral Service on 15 February. After the service, police officers from Owasso and the neighbouring city of Collinsville accompanied members of the local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse as they provided an escort from the service to the graveside.

A GoFundme page set up to help with funeral costs has raised more than $100,000 and Ms Benedict said she plans to donate most of the money to LGBTQ anti-bullying organisations.

“Nex had a light in them that was so big, they had so many dreams. I want their light to keep shining for everyone. That light was so big and bright and beautiful, and I want everyone to remember Nex that way.”

Benedict family statement

In a statement released through their lawyers on 21 February night, the Benedict family urged police to investigate “all potentially liable parties to do so fully, fairly and expediently”.

“On February 7th, 2024, the Benedict Family sent their child, Nex Benedict, to Owasso High School, trusting, like any parent or family member should be able to, that it was a safe environment for their loved one,” Oklahoma City-based Bibi Law Firm said in a statement.

“While at Owasso High School, Nex was attacked and assaulted in a bathroom by a group of other students. A day later, the Benedict’s beautiful child lost their life.”

The Benedict family called on “school, local, state and national officials to join forces to determine why this happened, to hold those responsible to account and to ensure it never happens again”.

“Notwithstanding, the family is independently interviewing witnesses and collecting all available evidence.”

This article was amended on 22 March 2024 to include responses from Chaya Raichik, and to correct an error. We previously reported that Nex “greatly admired” a teacher at Owasso High School, when the teacher actually worked at a middle school.

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