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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Anti-trans policies draw scrutiny after 16-year-old’s death in Oklahoma



Youths arrive to the campus of Owasso High School in Owasso, Okla. on Feb. 21, 2024, where a student died two weeks ago following what police called a “physical altercation” in a bathroom. The manner in which police and school officials’ have handled the death of Nex Benedict, who often used they/them pronouns, has drawn national attention and outrage. As of Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made. (Michael Noble Jr./The New York Times)

By J. David Goodman and Edgar Sandoval


A 16-year-old student in a small Oklahoma town outside Tulsa died after what police said was a “physical altercation” in a high school bathroom, drawing outrage from gay and transgender rights groups who said the student was attacked because of their gender identity.


The student, Nex Benedict, who often used the pronouns they and them, told relatives that they did not see themselves as strictly male or female. Under an Oklahoma law passed in 2022, students must use the bathrooms that align with their birth gender.


As of Wednesday afternoon, no arrests had been made in connection with the altercation, which occurred Feb. 7 in a girls’ bathroom at Owasso High School. Police said the case was still under investigation.


The apparent severity of the altercation, and the death of the student a day later, has focused national attention on how it is being handled by school officials and law enforcement.


The Owasso Police Department said in a statement Tuesday that no report had been made about the incident until after the injured student was taken to a hospital by relatives later the same day. At that point, a school resource officer went to the hospital, police said in their statement. The student was discharged and went home, but was rushed back to the hospital by Owasso fire department medics the next day, and died there, police said.


“It is not known at this time if the death is related to the incident at the school or not,” the statement said.


On Wednesday, police said in a new statement that preliminary information from the medical examiner, based on a complete autopsy, “indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma.” The statement did not suggest a cause of death, citing further pending tests including toxicology.


No other student was deemed to be in need of outside medical attention after the incident, the school said in a statement.


The school district issued a statement Tuesday suggesting there had been “speculation and misinformation” about the circumstances surrounding the altercation, which it said lasted less than two minutes before being broken up by other students “along with a staff member who was supervising outside of the restroom.” The school said that all the students involved “walked under their own power to the assistant principal’s office and nurse’s office.”


The school district said that parents and guardians of the students were given the option to file a police report after they were notified about the altercation, and added that any student who is found to have been involved “will receive disciplinary consequences.”


The district did not say what discipline was imposed.


A spokesperson for the school district, Jordan Korphage, said more detail could not be provided because of privacy laws, nor could the district provide information about any past reports of bullying against Nex.


“Nex did not see themselves as male or female,” Sue Benedict, a grandmother of Nex, told The Independent. “Nex saw themselves right down the middle. I was still learning about it, Nex was teaching me that.”


At a modest home in Owasso, a man who identified himself as Nex’s father said the family remained in mourning and declined to comment on the school’s handling of the incident. “We are grieving parents,” he said.


An online death notice described Nex, using their birth name, as a young person who loved nature, drawing and playing the video games Ark and Minecraft.


Melanie Atwood, 51, a neighbor two doors down from the family, said she remembered Nex as a young child who made Atwood cookies and liked to stop by to visit her cats. “It’s just terrible,” Atwood said.


Benedict said that after the altercation at the school, she was told that Nex had been suspended for two weeks. After coming home from the initial visit to the hospital, she said, Nex complained of a sore head. The next day, Nex collapsed at home and was rushed to the hospital, she said.


The family’s lawyers released a statement Wednesday saying Nex had been “attacked and assaulted in a bathroom by a group of other students,” and added that the Benedicts were praying for “meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy.”


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,” 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?’”


In addition to the bathroom law, 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.


Last month, the state education agency drew outrage from transgender rights groups after it named 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.


In 2022, Raichik reposted a video from a teacher in the Owasso school district who expressed support for gay and transgender students. The teacher was later fired.


“Chaya is on the front lines, showing the world exactly what the radical left is all about — lowering standards, porn in schools, and pushing woke indoctrination on our kids,” Walters told The Oklahoman last month.


Korphage, the spokesperson for the Owasso schools, said that students who identified as transgender or nonbinary would be treated “with dignity and respect, just like all students.”


He added: “Our goal is to be inclusive of all students regardless of race, gender, religion or background.”


Outside Owasso High School on Wednesday, students said the school had offered counseling to those who needed it, but that their classroom teachers had not addressed the national attention to the death of their classmate.


“There’s a feeling that something happened, but nobody is talking about it,” said Chris Turner, 18, a senior. “A lot of people have been acting different, and upset.”


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