New details emerge in death of nonbinary Oklahoma student

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday February 26, 2024
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Police continue to investigate the death of Oklahoma nonbinary high school student Nex Benedict. Photo: Courtesy GoFundMe
Police continue to investigate the death of Oklahoma nonbinary high school student Nex Benedict. Photo: Courtesy GoFundMe

New details have emerged in the case of the 16-year-old nonbinary student who died a day after a physical confrontation in an Oklahoma public school restroom.

Body camera video released by the Owasso Police Department on February 23 shows Nex Benedict talking to an officer about the fight, which happened February 7, one day before their death.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Benedict, a 10th grader, died in Owasso, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa of about 40,000 people. Since then, LGBTQ community leaders and advocates have said a culture of transphobia may be to blame.

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."

According to ABC News, students walked out of classes February 26 in protest of bullying, and to support the LGBTQ community. This came after vigils were held across America last weekend, including in Oklahoma City and Sacramento.

At the Oklahoma City Vigil, Human Rights Campaign Associate Regional Campaign Director Nicole Poindexter said that "we told them this would happen."

"We told them that if they continued this rhetoric of hate, this rhetoric of division, that it would result in body bags, and I am devastated to tell you we were right," Poindexter said, according to an HRC news release February 26.

Video shows teen recalling fight

"I don't know their names, I don't know them," Benedict said in the newly-released video of the alleged attackers, though they added the girls had criticized their attire in the past.

Benedict 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 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 them and Sue Benedict, their grandmother and guardian, that throwing the water legally was what started the incident and could constitute an assault.

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

"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," the statement reads. "At this time, any further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results and other ancillary testing results are received. The official autopsy report will be available at a later date."

Oklahomans don't want 'filth,' state senator says

Meanwhile, Oklahoma state Senator Tom Woods (R) was asked about the state's laws in the context of Benedict's death.

Oklahoma does not have a hate crime law that includes sexual orientation or gender identity, and Republican Governor Kevin Stitt two years ago signed a bill that segregates public school bathrooms by the sex on a person's birth certificate.

According to the Tahlequah Daily Press, Woods was asked at a public forum 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."

White House responds

The White House gave its condolences February 23; lesbian White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a news conference that day, "Our hearts are with Nex Benedict's family, friends, entire school community. In the wake of this horrific and gut-wrenching tragedy, I know that for many LGBTQ+ students across the country, this may feel personal and deeply, deeply painful."

Jean-Pierre also pointed to the 988 line now designated as the national suicide prevention number as the result of 2020 legislation the B.A.R. reported on at the time.

LGBTQ groups favored the creation of the number considering higher rates of self-harm in the community.

"There's always someone you can talk to if you're going through a hard time and need support," the press secretary said.

Jean-Pierre wouldn't comment on the potential for a federal investigation into Benedict's death; federal law does have a hate crime statute, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is named in part after Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was brutally beaten and died in 1998.

Vice President Kamala Harris gave a statement via X on February 22.

"My heart goes out to Nex Benedict's family, friends, and their entire community," she stated. "To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you, and you are not alone."

The national mental health crisis hotline number is 988.

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