Outrage as Oklahoma authorities refuse to bring charges in death of nonbinary teen Nex Benedict

Fight involving Benedict and other teens in high school bathroom considered ‘mutual combat’ that didn’t warrant charges, says Tulsa County district attorney

Maroosha Muzaffar,Mike Bedigan
Friday 22 March 2024 19:37 GMT
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White House addresses death of Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict

Advocacy groups in Oklahoma have criticised a statement from authorities over the death of non-binary teenager Nex Benedict, saying that the set of facts put out is “violently in opposition” to the experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ community.

On Thursday the Tulsa County district attorney announced that no charges would be brought against the other students involved in the altercation with Benedict, and that the incident was a case of “mutual combat”.

The teenager was beaten by other students inside a bathroom on 7 February, at the Owasso High School in Oklahoma. They died the following day, with the coroner later the death to be by suicide.

In his statement, Tulsa County DA Steve Kunzweiler said: “When I review a report and make a decision to file a charge I must be convinced – as is every prosecutor – that a crime was committed and that I have reasonable belief that a judge or jury would be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.

“From all the evidence gathered, this fight was an instance of mutual combat.”

The DA’s decision not to bring charges came despite the broader context of Benedict’s suicide following the fight, which has sparked calls for reforms against bullying and hate in schools from Benedict’s family and attention from LGBTQ+ rights groups, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, and president Joe Biden.

A statement later released by LGBTQ+ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma said the statement offered: “No more evidence or insight, instead, it asks us to trust the status quo in believing a set of facts that are so violently in opposition to the lived experiences of [LGBTQ+] Oklahomans.

“[LGBTQ+] people have always been, and will always be in Oklahoma. We deserve the safety to learn here, to thrive here. We deserve truth, transparency, and justice.

“We stand in solidarity with those seeking honest answers to what happened to Nex. And we do so because we hear and believe the harm [LGBTQ+]+ Oklahomans tell us they experience every day as a result of targeted policies and hostile school environments.”

The statement also criticised the DA’s statement for “deadnaming” the teenager. Deadnaming is the act of referring to a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to transitioning, such as their birth name.

“A statement that deadnames a trans victim as its opening sentence is one that clearly indicates the brand of justice doled out by DA Kunzweiler’s office–one that does not include or respect Two Spirit, transgender, or gender nonconforming+ (2STGNC+) people,” Freedom Oklahoma said.

The teenager was beaten by other students inside a bathroom on 7 February, at the Owasso High School in Oklahoma
The teenager was beaten by other students inside a bathroom on 7 February, at the Owasso High School in Oklahoma (THE OKLAHOMAN)

“It’s a shame to see DA Kunzweiler use the platform of his office in this way, but not unexpected given the culture of punishment, not justice, that is the Oklahoma standard when it comes to the criminal punishment system.”

The group added that it would be awaiting the results of a separate investigation into Benedict’s death by the US Department of Education.

In his statement on Thursday Mr Kunzweiler said that the contents of a note left by Benedict to their family were a personal matter that would be addressed privately.

On the decision not to bring charges he added that while securing a criminal conviction requires a standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the burden of proof in a civil case is significantly less.

“Whether or not individuals may choose to seek legal counsel for remedies in the civil realm of the court system is a decision best left to them,” he said.

“The scope of those inquiries are not as limited as the question of criminal/delinquent conduct which I was asked to address in this case.”

Last week, President Joe Biden said that he and first lady Jill Biden were “heartbroken” by Nex’s death.

In a statement released by the White House, Mr Biden said that all young people should have a “fundamental right and freedom to be who they are” and feel safe at school.

Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says
Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says (Courtesy of Benedict family)

The president’s statement read: “Jill and I are heartbroken by the recent loss of Nex Benedict.

“Every young person deserves to have the fundamental right and freedom to be who they are, and feel safe and supported at school and in their communities. Nex Benedict, a kid who just wanted to be accepted, should still be here with us today.”

The statement continued: “Nonbinary and transgender people are some of the bravest Americans I know. But nobody should have to be brave just to be themselves.”

It continued: “Bullying is hurtful and cruel, and no one should face the bullying that Nex did. Parents and schools must take reports of bullying seriously. My prayers are with Nex’s family, friends, and all who loved them – and to all LGBTQI+ Americans for whom this tragedy feels so personal, know this: I will always have your back.

“To LGBTQI+ young people across the country – you are loved exactly as you are.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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