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Trans rights

Nex Benedict: Non-binary student who died after Oklahoma bathroom assault was a ‘shining light’

Nex Benedict never backed down from bullies, even as Oklahoma lawmakers and far right influencers fostered a ‘climate of hate’ towards the LGBTQ community. Their mother Sue Benedict told Bevan Hurley she wants Nex’s light ‘to keep shining for everyone’

Wednesday 21 February 2024 22:18 GMT
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<p>Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says</p>

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

The death of non-binary Oklahoma student Nex Benedict after they were allegedly beaten up by three older kids in a school bathroom has led to an outpouring of grief and anger from their family and the LGBTQ community.

On 7 February, Nex suffered severe head injuries during a “physical altercation” in a bathroom at Owasso High School, according to the Owasso Police Department.

Nex’s mother Sue Benedict told The Independent they were badly beaten in a fight with three older students in a bathroom and hit their head on the floor.

Nex collapsed at home the next day and was later pronounced dead in hospital. The exact cause of death is currently unknown.

Owasso Public Schools officials said in a statement they did not call for medical help or notify police about the fight, based on district protocols.

On Monday, the Owasso Police Department said they were interviewing staff and students at Owasso High School, and were awaiting toxicology and autopsy reports from the medical examiner’s office before deciding whether to lay charges.

On Wednesday 21 February, Owasso police issued an updated statement that an autopsy had been completed which indicated 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 family later released a statement through 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”.

The 10th-grade student, who used them/they pronouns, had been bullied by students at Owasso High School for more than a year for their transgender identity, Ms Benedict told The Independent.

The bullying had begun at the beginning of the 2023 school year after Republican state lawmakers passed a bill that required public school students to use bathrooms that matched the sex listed on their birth certificates.

LGBTQ advocacy groups in Oklahoma have linked Nex’s death to the rise of hateful rhetoric and anti-trans legislation that the state legislature has passed.

Freedom Oklahoma described Nex’s death as a “hate crime”, and blamed the “hateful rhetoric spewed by leaders in our state” and far-right social media influencers.

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

“Nex should still be alive,” Freedom Oklahoma stated. “Owasso schools failed to create that environment for Nex. And we know that is the story for too many kids across our state.”

Ms Benedict told The Independent that Nex was a courageous, smart teenager who had simply been living their true identity.

What we know about the ‘assault’

Nex had faced taunts and insults at school due to their gender fluid identity for over a year, Ms Benedict said.

“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.”

Owasso Public Schools acknowledged that a “physical altercation” broke out in a restroom at Owasso High School west campus.

The incident lasted less than two minutes, the school said in a news release, and was broken up by other students and a teacher.

The school district said it determined that an ambulance service was not required. “Out of an abundance of caution, it was recommended to one parent that their student visit a medical facility for further examination.”

Ms Benedict told The Independent she arrived at the school to find Nex with bruises over their face and eyes, and with scratches on the back of their head.

Nex told her they had been knocked to the ground during the fight and hit their head on the floor.

Nex Benedict stood up to bullies who tormented them due to their non-binary identity

Ms Benedict was informed by the school that Nex would be suspended for two weeks, and took them to the Bailey Medical Center in Owasso for treatment.

Nex was given an MRI and discharged. Ms Benedict said Nex went to bed with a headache that night.

The next day, Nex collapsed at home. Ms Benedict called 911, and said Nex had stopped breathing by the time Owasso Fire Department medics arrived.

Nex was taken to St Francis Pediatric Emergency Room where they later died.

Text messages published by a Fox affiliate in Oklahoma showed that Nex told a relative the night of the fight that they’d tipped water over three girls who had been bullying them.

Nex texted that they “got jumped” by the three students, and that they felt “dizzy and nauseous” and if it continued it could be a concussion.

Ms Benedict told The Independent she understands the messages are genuine, but were released without her permission by a young relative.

Owasso PD spokesperson Nick Boatman told The Independent that detectives were interviewing school staff and students and would be submitting their investigation to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution review.

Mr Boatman said 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.

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.

After widespread outcry, the Owasso Public Schools defended its decision not to notify police or call for an ambulance, saying it had determined that emergency medical treatment was not required.

The Owasso school district said extra counselling services were being made available to affected students and staff.

In a statement released through their lawyers on Wednesday 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.”

Who was Nex Benedict?

Nex was born in El Paso, Texas, on 11 January 2008.

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.

Ms Benedict said that Nex’s biological father was in prison, and had relinquished all rights to them when they were young.

Ms Benedict told The Independent that Nex had identified as non-binary from an early age, and that she and her husband Walter at times struggled to understand the nuances of Nex’s gender fluidity.

“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,” 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’

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

“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.

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.

Ms Benedict told how Nex was close with members of Bikers Against Child Abuse, and members had attended their adoption service.

“Nex had a light in them that was so big, they had so many dreams,” Ms Benedict said. “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.”

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.

The family said in a statement that it “graciously accepts and appreciates the outpouring of support, thoughts and prayers from across the nation for the loss of their child”.

“The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has ot deal with another preventable tragedy.”

It further asked that any threats of violence against students and employees of the Owasso Public Schools cease immediately.

What have lawmakers said

In a statement on Tuesday, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt said: “Our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates, and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

Mr Stitt has been at the forefront of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the state, and last year signed an executive order defining an individual’s sex as the “biological sex” at birth

Oklahoma state representative Mauree Turner, who is the state’s sole non-binary lawmaker, held a minute’s silence in the Oklahoma City capitol building on Monday in honour of Nex’s death.

In an Instagram post, representative Turner wrote: “this one hurt”.

They added that trans Oklahomans deserved “less compromising of our identities because it’s just not comfortable for you. More unquestioned community advocacy. More tenderness and care”.

“My brain is still spinning about it all and I’m not sure I’ll have enough words to really do Nex justice. I’m so sorry,” they wrote.

Former Owasso student reacts to teen death

Senator John Fetterman posted a link to an article about Nex on X, along with the words: “If we continue to normalize cruelty in deeply intimate issues in hyper-local spaces, the most vulnerable will pay the tragic price.”

The state’s superintendent of public schools Ryan Walters has been accused of inflaming anti-trans bigotry towards students. 

In June 2023, he put out a “public service message” describing transgender students as a “threat” in schools.

Mr Walters appointed Chaya Raichik, an anti-LGBTQ activist who runs the Libs of TikTok social media account, to a state library board last month.

Ms Raichik posts edited, anti-trans videos that target LGBTQ friendly public school teachers and librarians.

In a statement to The Oklahoman, Mr Walters said he mourned “the loss of our student in Owasso and pray for God’s comfort for the family and the entire Owasso community”.

What indigenous leaders have said

Nex’s family also take great pride in being Native American. Their mother Sue Benedict is a registered member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. In a statement,  Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton told The Independent that Nex’s death “weighs heavily on the hearts of the Choctaw people”.

“The loss of a child is always difficult for a community and a family to accept,” Chief Batton said.

“We pray Nex’s family and their loved ones will find comfort.”

Media reports incorrectly stated that Nex was affiliated with the Cherokee Nation, and Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr released a statement offering the support of the tribal police to the Ossawa police.

“Nex was a child living within our reservation and deserved love, support and to be kept safe,” Chief Hoskin Jr said in a statement.

“As a partner with all law enforcement agencies across the reservation, I have asked the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service to offer its support to the Owasso Police Department in investigating Nex’s case.”

What have advoacy groups said

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, described Nex’s death as a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred”.

“The depths of this cruelty is sickening. Nex's life demands justice. We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out. We are determined to fight for Nex and their family.”

Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Oklahoma issued a joint statement saying they were “gravely heartbroken” about Nex’s death.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth.

“We challenged Oklahoma’s law requiring schools to discriminate against students like Nex because we believe every student should have the safe and affirming environment they need to thrive, and policies that put transgender students in danger make schools less safe places for all students.”

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