Oklahoma Students Walk Out To Protest Death Of Nex Benedict

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Oklahoma Students Walk Out To Protest Death Of Nex Benedict

Dozens of students at Owasso High School in Oklahoma walked out on Monday in the wake of the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old who died on Feb. 8, one day after being beaten in a school restroom. The students said they were protesting a culture of bullying and a lack of response by school officials.

Police released footage last week showing an interview with Benedict, who describes how three girls “jumped” them after they threw water at them. When the officer asked Nex why they had been getting bullied, Benedict said it was “because of the way that we dress.”

At a vigil for the sophomore this weekend, several of Benedict’s friends told NBC News’ Jo Yurcaba that Benedict was transgender. They said that Benedict used he/him pronouns at school but also used they/them pronouns.

LGBTQ+ and other students at the walkout on Monday told NBC News that they feel as if the school doesn’t adequately respond to bullying. Even when students report bullying, they said, nothing seems to change.

“There’s been bullying issues. This time, the bullying has gone so far that a student passed,” a student organizer named Kane told NBC News. “To me, it doesn’t matter if Nex passed from a traumatic brain injury or if they passed from suicide. What matters is the fact that they died after getting bullied, and that is the story for so many other students. I’ve been close to ending it myself because of bullying. It’s not new for so many students.”

The Owasso Police Department released a preliminary statement on Facebook last week, noting that after an autopsy was performed, the medical examiner’s office determined that Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma. The cause of Benedict’s death is still pending until the toxicology exam and official autopsy repeat are released, which will inform police whether to arrest or charge individuals involved.”

Benedict’s family has questioned this conclusion and told The Independent that they are conducting a separate investigation into the cause of their child’s death.

Alumni of Owasso High School say the school has had a problem with bullying, particularly of LGBTQ+ students, for more than a decade.

Remy, a 26-year-old pharmacy technician who uses they/them and he/him pronouns, said their time at Owasso High was the worst four years of their life. Remy, who now lives in Colorado, graduated in 2016 and said they experienced bullying from students and teachers because of the way they looked and dressed.

Remy said a teacher once joked in front of the whole class that they were going to be “tied up like a pioneer woman and thrown in the back of the wagon.”

They said they brought up the instance with the principal and nothing happened.

Brock Crawford, a spokesperson for Owasso Public Schools, released a statement to HuffPost when asked about the culture of bullying as described by current and former students.

“As a district, the safety and security of our students is our top priority and we are committed to fostering a safe and inclusive environment for everyone. Bullying in any form is unacceptable. We take reports of bullying very seriously and have policies and procedures to address such behavior,” the statement says.

The school encourages people who witness or experience bullying to report it to a parent, teacher or school administrator, or to submit it anonymously on the district’s Bullying Prevention website.

Though Remy was not out as trans in high school, they said friends who did come out were afraid of what might happen to them and were taunted and mocked by fellow classmates.

“I felt like I was mostly just living in fear because I didn’t really quite know what I identified as or who I was,” Remy remembered. “I felt like I couldn’t even tap into what I was feeling because I was so scared about what could happen to me.”

Last week, a video circulated of a recent transgender graduate of Owasso speaking about their experiences being bullied and assaulted by students and teachers.

“The administration has never cared about its LGBTQ+ students,” the 19-year-old said in the video. “The murder of Nex is the direct product of their design.”

Benedict’s death has set off waves of grief and fear across the country, Many communities held vigils to mourn Benedict’s death and protest the bullying and harassment that LGBTQ+ students face in schools.

A candlelight vigil is held for Nex Benedict in Tulsa.
A candlelight vigil is held for Nex Benedict in Tulsa.

J Pat Carter via Getty Images

Last week, the Human Rights Campaign asked the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to investigate the cause of Benedict’s death. There have been similar calls from state officials.

“We believe that Nex’s death is the natural consequence of a growing wave of hatred against LGBTQ+ people,” read the Human Right Campaign’s letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“Their death is a gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-transgender hatred spreading across the United States, and must be investigated by the Department as a potential hate crime,” the letter said.

Oklahoma’s hate crime statute doesn’t include sexuality, gender or gender identity as protected classes, so crimes against LGBTQ+ people because of their identity are harder to prosecute.

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering a slew of anti-LGBTQ measures, which would further restrict access to gender-affirming care, force teachers to misgender and deadname students, and continue to limit what little Oklahoma students can learn about gender and sexuality in the classroom.

The Sooner State has long been a testing ground for some of the more extreme anti-LGBTQ+ bills and policies as the state aligns itself more and more with conservative Christian crusades. Last week, a Republican state senator called LGBTQ+ people “filth” after being asked a question about the Oklahoma’s anti-LGBTQ+ culture and Benedict’s death.

The Republican state superintendent, Ryan Walters, has a track record of targeting LGBTQ+ teachers and students and last year created a rule to block trans students from updating school records with their correct gender markers.

In January he appointed Chaya Raichik, the Los Angeles-based right-wing activist behind the inflammatory X account Libs of TikTok, to the library media advisory committee at the state Department of Education. NBC identified 33 instances when people or institutions that were targeted by the Libs of TikTok later received bomb threats or other kinds of harassment.

Last week, in a meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Education, Walters briefly acknowledged Benedict’s death as “a heartbreaking tragedy.” He then moved on to speak about the fight a local school district is putting up against his department to challenge its authority to remove books they see as having sexual content.

“We’re never going to back down to those pressures. We’re going to continue to make sure our kids are receiving a good education, and the type of materials that we’ve seen are incredibly graphic and pornographic and should not be in the hands of kids,” he said.

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