Oklahoma Officials Under Fire Over Nonbinary Teen’s Death Following School Fight

2022 state law forced a 16-year-old to use a bathroom that wasn’t safe. Their family says their school and local police failed to act.

Nex Benedict (GoFundMe)

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Updated March 13

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Oklahoma has ruled Nex Benedict’s death a suicide caused by a combination of antihistamines and an antidepressant. A full toxicology report is expected by the end of the month. 

Updated Feb. 27

More than 350 civil rights groups, LGBTQ advocates and high-profile figures are demanding the removal of Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and calling for a U.S. Department of Education investigation into the Feb. 8 death of a transgender student following an altercation in a school bathroom. The organization coordinating the push, the Human Rights Campaign, had previously called for a Department of Justice probe

“Long before Nex Benedict’s tragic death, Superintendent Walters’s troubling history of transphobic and racist behavior consistently put Oklahoma’s students, staff and teachers at risk,” Kelley Robinson, the group’s president, said in a statement. “Now, his callous response to Nex’s death makes it clearer than ever that he is unfit for the role — and is in fact a danger to Oklahoma’s youth.”

Oklahoma’s Rainbow Youth Project said it had received nearly 1,000 calls from LGBT youth experiencing mental health crises — almost all of them in the last week, after national news outlets reported Nex’s death. The organization pointed out that the number of such contacts has mushroomed in the months since Walters circulated a video and other social media posts claiming transgender students pose a danger to schools. In a statement following a groundswell of national attention to Nex’s death, Walters accused the “radical left” of politicizing a tragedy

Owasso, Oklahoma, police officials had said preliminary autopsy reports found the 16-year-old’s death was not the result of “trauma” but later told NBC News they did not mean to suggest that the fight, which happened the day before Nex’s death, was not the cause.

On Feb. 7, a 16-year-old nonbinary student at Owasso High School in Oklahoma was involved in an altercation in a girls’ bathroom. On Feb. 8, Nex Benedict, who used they/them pronouns and whose family claims roots in the Choctaw Nation, was pronounced dead at a local hospital. 

Nearly two weeks later, after a flurry of social media posts from small LGBTQ publications, the U.S. edition of The Independent published an interview with Sue Benedict, Nex’s mother, who said Nex had endured months of bullying at school over their gender identity. Benedict said Nex told her they and another transgender student had been in a fight in the bathroom with three older girls and that Nex hit their head on the floor. 

Within 24 hours of the interview’s publication, numerous news outlets had begun sifting through an avalanche of often contradictory statements from school officials, law enforcement and the Benedicts’ friends and neighbors.

While the facts will likely take a long time to establish, advocates say one thing is clear: The legislative assault on LGBTQ rights in Oklahoma over the last two years — including the 2022 passage of a bathroom bill that forced Nex into a space considered unsafe for trans youth — has left students to fend for themselves in schools that feel increasingly hostile. 

Benedict said she was called to the school the afternoon of Feb. 7 and told that Nex had been suspended for two weeks. There were visible bruises and scratches on the teen’s face and head. Benedict drove to a hospital, where she asked for help filing a police report. The school should have called both an ambulance and the police, she said.  

In a statement issued after the news story’s appearance, the Owasso Public Schools said Nex had been examined by the school nurse and that Benedict had been advised to have them examined at a medical facility. The other students did not need care. District policy is to inform parents of students involved in fights that they have the option of filing a police report, the statement added.

Officials with the Owasso Police Department this week said preliminary autopsy results showed Nex did not die as a result of “trauma,” yet also said in a search warrant filed Wednesday that they “suspect foul play.” A police spokesperson told NBC that the department had video from a camera in the school hallway showing Nex before and after the incident. There was no word at the time of publication about what the video showed.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona decried the incident on social media, calling for safer schools.  

The teen’s death is the latest in a string of incidents in Oklahoma, which over the last two years has enacted at least four laws restricting the rights of LGBTQ youth. The 2022 bathroom law requires students to use the restroom that corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth, mandates that schools discipline those who don’t comply and reduces state funding by 5% the following fiscal year for any district that does not impose consequences. 

In 2022, Chaya Raichik, who runs the far-right X account Libs of TikTok, posted a video of one of Nex’s teachers expressing support for LGBTQ students. “If your parents don’t love and accept you for who you are this Christmas, f***,” former eighth-grade teacher Tyler Wrynn said in his own TikTok post. “I’m your parents now. I’m proud of you.” The teacher resigned after his post became a flashpoint among some parents because of its pro-LGBTQ stance. 

In August, Superintendent of Education Ryan Walters came under criticism for retweeting a Libs of TikTok post about a Tulsa librarian that was blamed for a bomb threat against the elementary school where she worked. Last month, he appointed Raichik to a state committee tasked with screening school library materials for “pornographic” and “woke” content — a move he said was part of an effort to “make schools safer.” Raichik this week accused “leftists” of politicizing Nex’s death.

According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, there are about 2,000 transgender youth in Oklahoma. 

Whether exactly what transpired in the Owasso High School bathroom may never be determined, Nex’s death has fueled the ongoing debate over the impact a wave of “hostile” laws has had on queer students’ safety and schools’ willingness or ability to protect them, says Cait Smith, the director of LGBTQI+ policy at the Center for American Progress. Of the 667 bills introduced throughout the country in 2023 seeking to curtail rights based on sexual orientation or gender identity, 63% specifically targeted young people, she says. 

“There is a larger concern here, a larger trend that we have to be talking about,” says Smith. “We often call these hostile school climate bills. Schools in states where they have these laws passing [are] having to deal with policies that make it harder for them to create schools that are safe and affirming — let alone schools that allow students to thrive and feel comfortable enough to love school and do well at school.”

Though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021 declined to take up a case that found students are entitled to use the restroom that matches their identity, trans bathroom use has continued to face challenges in legislatures and courts. At least seven bills restricting trans bathroom access passed last year, Smith says. Five of them were school-specific.

Supporters of bathroom bans say they are needed to protect cisgender girls and women from assault by trans people. 


LGBTQ students’ fears of poorly monitored school spaces such as locker rooms, stairwells and lunchrooms predate the current ideological firestorm. In a survey of LGBTQ youth experiences conducted in 2021 — just as the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation was beginning to sweep statehouses — the advocacy group GLSEN found that 68% of queer students felt unsafe at school. Bathrooms topped the list of places they avoid, with 45% saying they feared using the restroom. 

The American Medical Association has linked a lack of bathroom access to increased mental and physical health issues among transgender youth and adults. Nearly 6 in 10 avoid using public restrooms out of fear, and 14% say they have been assaulted in bathrooms.

In Oklahoma, the number of students who reported hearing negative remarks from teachers about sexual orientation doubled between 2019 and 2021, to 69%. The number who said they heard pejorative comments from adults about trans people rose from 46% to 80% during the same time period. Only 1% reported not hearing slurs from classmates.

Fourteen percent reported being physically assaulted in school because of their sexual orientation and 13% over their gender expression. More than half said they did not report the harassment or violence to school administrators, whom only 16% of LGBTQ students perceive as supportive. Only 6% believe their school’s anti-bullying policies include sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The ACLU of Oklahoma has sued state officials and four school districts, charging the bathroom law is discriminatory and violates students’ educational rights. The case is pending in federal court. 

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