Editorial: Feds must probe Nex Benedict's death

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday February 28, 2024
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Nex Benedict. Photo: Courtesy GFM
Nex Benedict. Photo: Courtesy GFM

The U.S. Department of Justice needs to open an investigation into the death of nonbinary Oklahoma high school student Nex Benedict. While the police in Owasso, a small town outside of Tulsa, continue to investigate Benedict's death, the Sooner State does not have a hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. The federal government does — the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — and Attorney General Merrick Garland needs to deploy a team of federal DOJ investigators to the scene. Additionally, the federal Department of Education should investigate the state education department, as called for this week by the national Human Rights Campaign.

As has been widely reported, Benedict, 16, was involved in a physical altercation February 7 in a bathroom at Owasso High School, where they were a 10th grader. According to text messages from Benedict that they shared with a family member that were reported by local TV news, they reported being "jumped at school. 3 on 1, had to go to the ER." Benedict returned home, but the next day collapsed at their grandmother/guardian's home and died.

In a newly released video, police interviewed Benedict at the hospital. "I don't know their names, I don't know them," Benedict said of the alleged attackers, though they added the girls had criticized their attire in the past. Benedict said that they had tried to ignore past bullying, and so didn't report it, but the day of the fight, they were mocked for how they were laughing while talking with friends in the bathroom.

"They were talking about us in front of us," Benedict said.

Benedict told the officer interviewing them at the hospital that they poured water from their water bottle on the girls after those remarks, after which the girls grabbed Benedict's hair. Benedict was then thrown onto the ground and beaten up after throwing one of the girls at a paper towel dispenser.

Benedict lost consciousness. The video shows the officer telling Benedict and Sue Benedict, their grandmother and guardian, that throwing the water legally was what started the incident and could constitute an assault. This remark seems to downplay the bullying Benedict experienced and the fact that they were attacked during the incident.

Benedict died February 8, the day after the fight. Owasso police say that while the cause of death is so far undetermined, preliminary findings show it was not "as a result of trauma," according to a statement February 21.

Oklahoma has a number of anti-LGBTQ laws on its books, including one that requires students to use school restrooms that match the gender identity on their birth certificates. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent Ryan Walters — both Republicans — are not allies to the community by any means. Walters, in fact, appointed transphobe and online troll Chaya Raichick of Libs of TikTok to a state library advisory committee. So we know that they do not have the best interests of LGBTQ or gender-expansive students on their agenda. The rabid anti-LGBTQ views espoused by Raichick and others contributes to pervasive bullying and threats of violence against queer youth. Just this week, Media Matters reported that Raichick acknowledged in an interview that a post of hers was false but she would not take it down. (That post falsely identified the shooter at the school in Uvalde, Texas as trans.)

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma are challenging that Oklahoma bathroom bill, which Stitt signed in 2022, in court. In September 2022, the organizations filed a federal lawsuit, Bridge v. the Oklahoma State Department of Education, on behalf of three transgender students. According to the ACLU of Oklahoma's website, the case is pending.

Stephen Chukumba, left, the father of a gender-expansive youth who was featured in the short documentary "The Dads," spoke at a memorial for Nex Benedict in Maplewood, New Jersey on February 24. Photo: Courtesy NJ Safe Schools Coalition  

Aside from the legal case, even if it is found that trauma did not play a role in Benedict's death, the hostile climate for LGBTQ and gender-expansive students in the state is reason enough for federal intervention. Conservative Oklahoma leaders don't seem to grasp the severity of Benedict's death, nor, would we argue, do they want to. Indeed, when you have elected leaders describing LGBTQ people as "filth," there is a disconnect. Benedict was a person, after all. Not an "it," as some have referred to them.

The Tahlequah Daily Press recently reported about a town hall forum held by Republican state Senator Tom Woods. He was asked by audience member Cathy Cott, "Why does the Legislature have such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of Oklahoma and what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children?"

While Woods said his "heart goes out" regarding Benedict's death, "We are a Republican state — supermajority — in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn't want that filth in Oklahoma. We are a religious state and we are going to fight it to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we are a Christian state — we are a moral state. We want to lower taxes and let people be able to live and work and go to the faith they choose. We are a Republican state and I'm going to vote my district, and I'm going to vote my values, and we don't want that in the state of Oklahoma."

Whether Woods realizes it or not, there are LGBTQ, Two-Spirit, and gender-expansive people in the Sooner State. They are constituents of elected representatives just as much as everyone else. It's unfortunate that the state Legislature is in the firm grip of anti-LGBTQ Republicans, but a high school student's death should be of urgent concern to all elected leaders.

At least Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R) issued a statement condemning the bullying and that children should not be subjected to it. Stitt issued a statement to the Washington Post echoing those sentiments.

But this type of bullying is also what happens when education officials care more about appeasing Libs of TikTok followers than students. This includes bans of LGBTQ-themed books, the misinformed belief that drag queens are out to "recruit" children, and on and on it goes. What public school students should have is the support of teachers and staff and the ability to get an education.

Garland should use the resources of the federal government to investigate Benedict's death. This young person had their whole life ahead of them.

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