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What happened to Nex Benedict?

Nex Benedict was frequently targeted by bullies at their Oklahoma high school because of their gender identity.
Kasandra Phelps via GoFundMe
Nex Benedict was frequently targeted by bullies at their Oklahoma high school because of their gender identity.

Updated March 22, 2024 at 10:25 AM ET

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Last month, nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict was found dead at home the day after an altercation at school, where they were attacked by a group of their classmates in a restroom.

Benedict, a 16-year-old Indigenous person who used both he/him and they/them pronouns according to friends and family, had been targeted by bullies at their Oklahoma high school because of their gender identity, according to Sue Benedict, who has been identified in various media reports as either Nex Benedict's mother or their grandmother and guardian.

"I didn't know how bad it had gotten," Sue Benedict told The Independent.

Though the school nurse determined that ambulance service was not required following the attack on Benedict, it was recommended that they "visit a medical facility for further examination," Owasso, Okla., police said.

Sue Benedict told Public Radio Tulsa that she took Nex to the hospital for treatment for injuries sustained in the fight, but body cam footage shows a police officer discouraging the family from filing a report, saying that it would open up the family to legal liability.

The officer added that it would be a shame for any of the students to have to deal with a criminal situation for "something so minuscule," though Benedict disclosed that they had experienced bullying for a full year prior to this attack.

The day after the incident, Benedict collapsed at home, and was later pronounced dead.

Owasso Public Schools released a statement to the community, writing, "The loss of a student, a member of the Ram Family and the Owasso community, is devastating," but said it would limit its statements "out of respect and for the confidentiality for all involved."

Following Benedict's death, community members held vigils, LGBTQ+ rights organizations issued statements, and many were left wondering: What happened to Nex Benedict?

The latest on the case

On March 21,prosecutors in Oklahoma announced that they would not be pressing charges against against anyone involved in the school fight, with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler stating that the fight was "an instance of mutual combat" and that juvenile charges were "not warranted."

"Time and time again, leaders in Oklahoma have showed that they don't value Nex's life, or the lives of other Indigenous and 2STGNC+ (Two Spirit, transgender, gender-noncoforming+) students," said Sarah-Kate Ellis, President and CEO of the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, GLAAD.

"Everyone from Superintendent Walters and Owasso High School to the unaccredited-since-2009 state Medical Examiner's Office, the District Attorney, and Owasso Police Department have failed Nex Benedict and failed us all," Ellis said, adding an independent investigation is needed to understand the truth of what happened to Benedict.

According to Kunzweiler, Owasso police found brief notes written by Benedict that "appeared to be related to the suicide," and aside from clarifying that the notes do not mention the fight at school, no further information has been provided about their contents.

Questions over the medical examiner's findings

According to the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office, Benedict died by suicide.

"From the beginning of this investigation, Owasso Police observed many indications that this death was the result of suicide," the police department said in a statement, with a summary autopsy report saying that Benedict died after consuming two different types of medication.

Many expressed their condolences following the alleged findings, including President Biden.

"Every young person deserves to have the fundamental right and freedom to be who they are, and feel safe and supported at school and in their communities," Biden said in a statement following the news, adding that Benedict, "a kid who just wanted to be accepted, should still be here with us today."

"In memory of Nex, we must all recommit to our work to end discrimination and address the suicide crisis impacting too many nonbinary and transgender children," the president added.

Rates of suicide are disproportionately high for transgender youth in comparison to their cisgender counterparts, but transgender people of color face even higher rates of suicide risk.

In a 2023 national survey on LGBTQ+ youth mental health by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ anti-suicide organization, Native/Indigenous youth LGBTQ+ consistently reported the highest suicide risk among racial and ethnic groups, with nearly one in four Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth reporting attempts on their own lives.

But advocates, supporters, and even Benedict's own family have remained skeptical of the report, which has still not been released. The autopsy summary did not include the exact amounts of each medication found in Benedict's system.

"Rather than allow incomplete accounts to take hold and spread any further, the Benedicts feel compelled to provide a summary of those findings which have not yet been released by the Medical Examiner's office, particularly those that contradict allegations of the assault on Nex being insignificant," said a press release from the Benedict family attorneys.

The release also showed a section of the summary autopsy report, which reported that while Benedict did not sustain "lethal trauma," they did have multiple injuries to their head, neck and torso, which the lawyers say clearly shows "the severity of the assault."

"There is nothing in this one page document to explain why the medical examiner checked a box," said Ellis, on the decision to list suicide as Benedict's cause of death.

"Media must have learned by now that they need to continue to question what they get from law enforcement and government entities in Oklahoma that have so far failed to protect vulnerable students and responsibly provide any information that is critical for student safety," Ellis said.

Sue Benedict told The Independent that Nex started being bullied at school after Oklahoma's Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, signed a bill in 2022 that forbade trans and nonbinary youth from using bathrooms concurrent with their gender identities.

In 2023, Stitt followed up the bathroom ban with a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth in the state, one of 87 anti-trans bills that passed in the U.S. last year, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker.

Just three months into the current year, 523 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures.

And trans youth report that these legal restrictions on their freedom are having direct impacts on their mental health.

According to theTrevor Project's survey, nearly one in three LGBTQ+ youth said their "mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation."

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said in a statement, "We must demand better from our elected officials and reject harmful anti-transgender legislation at the local, state and federal levels, while also considering every possible way to make ending this violence a reality."

What happens next?

On March 1, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) notified the Human Rights Campaign that in response to an HRC complaint filed around Benedict's death, the office would be investigating the Owasso public school district for potential violations of Title IX, which prevents discrimination based on sex, and Title II, which stipulates that schools must prevent bullying and harassment.

However, the timeline for the investigation is unknown.

"The goal of an OCR investigation is to determine whether an alleged civil rights violation took place and to decide what district reforms are appropriate based on what the investigation uncovered,"Rachel Perera, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote.

While the OCR can withdraw federal funding from a school district if the investigation finds violations of civil rights law, "enforcement actions are rare," added Perera in her written commentary.

The case could also potentially be referred to the Department of Justice for further action, but what will come out of the investigation and whether its findings will be escalated still remains to be seen.

Many are hoping that Benedict's death could spur further action that aims to deter bullying in schools.

"Reforms creating school environments that are built upon the pillars of respect, inclusion and grace, and aim to eliminate bullying and hate, are the types of change that all involved should be able to rally behind," said the Benedict family's counsel.

But Sue Benedict is still mourning her loss.

"I just want my child back," she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

C Mandler