Oklahoma school faces US federal probe in the wake of Nex Benedict’s death

US federal officials have confirmed that they are opening an investigation into the Oklahoma school district where high school pupil Nex Benedict died following a fight last month.

Nex Benedict, who was Two Spirit/gender non-conforming and used he/they pronouns according to his friends (as confirmed in this NBC interview), died on 8 February, one day after telling his family they had been involved in a physical altercation in the toilets at Owasso High School.

Owasso Public Schools have faced criticism for not reporting the fight to police or seeking emergency medical treatment for Nex Benedict in the aftermath of the altercation.

According to a letter sent by the US Department of Education to the LGBTQ+ not-for-profit organisation Human Rights Campaign’s President Kelley Robinson, the department is intending to open an investigation into Owasso Public Schools’ – in the words of HRC – “failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the tragic death of Nex Benedict (he/they), a 16-year-old 2STGNC+ (Two Spirit, transgender, or gender nonconforming+) teen of Choctaw heritage.”

People gather outside the Stonewall Inn for a memorial and vigil for the Oklahoma teenager who died following a fight in a high school bathroom on February 26, 2024 in New York City. Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old who identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, died a day after the altercation in the school bathroom. One protester is holding a sign that says 'Nex, killed by hate'
People gather outside the Stonewall Inn in NYC for a memorial and vigil for Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict, who died following a fight in a high school bathroom (Getty)

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made by HRC last week. In an open letter sent to US attorney general Merrick Garland and the secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, on Wednesday (21 February), 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.

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“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.”

According to a police statement, Nex 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. He was taken to a pediatric emergency room where he later died. 

An official cause of death is “currently pending”, and Benedict’s family are conducting their own investigation into the teen’s death. An Owasso police representative has said that murder charges are not “off the cards.”

Over a dozen former classmates of Nex Benedict staged a school walkout on 26 February to protest Nex Benedict’s death and show support for the school’s LGBTQ+ community.

Students held up signs stating “You Are Loved” and “Protect Queer Kids” as they gathered at an intersection across from the school.

The response letter to the HRC from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District). Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year.”

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