Nex Benedict: Human Rights Campaign demands federal investigation into non-binary teen’s death

Oklahoma non-binary teen Nex Benedict, who died on 8 February 2024, wears a light coloured shirt and dark vest as they stand outside

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has called for a federal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of non-binary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict.

In an open letter sent to US attorney general Merrick Garland and the secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, on Wednesday (21 February), the LGBTQ+ not-for-profit organisation’s president, Kelley Robinson, demanded that the Department of Justice (DoJ) “promptly begin an investigation” into Benedict’s treatment at Owasso High School, where they were a student.

“Nex’s life demands justice,” Robinson wrote. “The department has various tools available for addressing anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and violence, including through the bringing of a hate crimes investigation and potentially charges that could help hold the perpetrators of these horrific acts accountable.”

Benedict, a 16-year-old citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, died on 8 February after being rushed to hospital one day after an alleged assault in a bathroom at Owasso High School.

According to a police statement, Benedict was taken to hospital on 7 February after the alleged altercation and suffered scratches and bruises to their head, among other injuries. Police were reportedly not aware of the incident until after the pupil was taken to hospital.

The following afternoon, Owasso Fire Department medics responded to a medical emergency involving the teenager. They were taken to a pediatric emergency room where they later died, police said. 

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Preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office, shared by the Owasso Police Department, indicated that Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma,” although an official cause of death is “currently pending”, awaiting an official autopsy report.

Benedict’s family said that, while the investigation into their death was still ongoing, preliminary details were “troubling at best.”

The family lawyer said: “We urge those tasked with investigating and prosecuting all potentially liable parties to do so fully, fairly and expediently.

“The Benedict family calls on all school, local, state and national officials to join forces to determine why this happened, to hold those responsible to account and to ensure it never happens again.”

Nex Benedict bullied for years prior to death, mother says

Nex’s adoptive mother Sue Benedict has alleged that Nex was routinely bullied at school. In its open letter, the HRC branded the treatment Benedict had endured at school “sickening”.

“We believe that Nex’s death is the natural consequence of a growing wave of hatred against LGBTQ+ people,” Robinson wrote. “This is being fuelled by an unprecedented, co-ordinated attempt to eliminate the rights and visibility of our community across the country.”

Robinson also criticised the school’s reaction to the alleged bullying, noting that, in the police report, it is implied that Benedict’s own family, not the school, made officers aware of the incident in the toilets.

“Efforts to stoke hate and discrimination across the country are having a direct, negative impact on the lives of trans and gender-expansive people,” Robinson went on to say. “This includes young students like Nex, who face harsh social and public environments, largely influenced by this discourse that undermines their lives.”

The teen’s death has called into question the role anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric play in the lives of trans and non-binary young people.

Benedict’s death followed “years of harmful and discriminatory policy and legislation that continue to make all students less safe”, advocacy group GLAAD noted in a statement.

“Every student, teacher and family needs to know that violence and bullying will not be tolerated, and that they can be themselves, be safe and belong in their school and communities,” the statement added.