Before their death, 16-year old Nex Benedict lived in a small home on the end of a dead-end street in south Owasso, just west of the U.S. 169 highway.  

Family members, who spoke briefly to The Frontier this week, said they’ve been overwhelmed, not just with support but a crush of media attention. Reporters continue to drop by the home, and the phone has barely stopped ringing, they said. 

While the circumstances surrounding Nex’s death remain under investigation, outrage has rapidly spread online as people linked the case to Oklahoma’s anti-woke school policies, including a law that requires public school students to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. Not to mention State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ recent appointment of conservative activist and Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik to a school library board. 

Nex, who was nonbinary, was a student at Owasso High School, and died on Feb. 8, one day after a fight in a bathroom at school.

Authorities in the town of about 38,000 have slowly begun to release information. On Wednesday, the Owasso Police Department issued a statement saying that preliminary information from the state Medical Examiner’s Office indicated Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma,” but an investigation is still ongoing. 

“At this time, any further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results and other ancillary testing results are received,” the release said.  “The official autopsy report will be available at a later date.”

Sue Benedict, Nex’s grandmother, who raised the teen, said in a statement the family was “thankful for the ongoing support and did not expect the love from everyone.” A fundraiser for Nex had raised nearly $75,000 as of Wednesday afternoon. The family said they would use money leftover from the funeral to support “other kids” like Nex.

“The rest of monies will go to other children dealing with the right to be who they feel they are, in Nex Benedict’s name. God bless,” Sue Benedict posted.

Photos shared by Nex’s family show the teenager often smiling or cuddling their pet cat. Nex’s hair is short around their shoulders and in the most widely-shared photo, they’re wearing a formal white shirt and black vest. Another photo shows the teen wearing a hoodie for the metal band Slipknot.

Nex’s story first started gaining traction online over the three-day President’s Day weekend,  when school and police officials in the small town were unavailable. As quickly as the story began to pick up speed, so did the rumors. Early media reports claimed the school didn’t notify police or call an ambulance, provoking anger online. One LGBTQ+ advocacy group issued a statement claiming Nex was a member of the Cherokee tribe, which it later corrected. Tribal nations eventually released statements saying that Nex wasn’t a member, but that Sue Benedict was a citizen of the Choctaw Nation.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that authorities released additional details about the case. The Owasso Police Department issued a statement, but did not release police reports citing an ongoing investigation. The state Open Records Act provides no such exemption, but the department nevertheless declined to release the records. 

Instead, Owasso police told reporters the department was called to a local hospital on Feb. 7, the day of the fight, shortly after school ended that day “in reference to a report of a student who had been involved in a physical altercation at Owasso High School.”

The next day, police said, they were notified the student had been rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead.

In messages that a family member released to Tulsa station Fox 23, Nex said they were “all good,” and just had scrapes and bruises after the fight. 

“Got a shot in the butt for my pain but if I’m still nauseous in the morning I might have a concussion,” Nex said in a message after the fight. The girls had been bullying Nex and a friend, so Nex poured water on them, one message said.

“All 3 came after me,” Nex wrote.

The school sent an email to parents on Tuesday, saying they “cooperated fully” with the Owasso Police Department’s investigation. The students involved in the fight were in the restroom that day for “less than two minutes,” according to school officials. Other students and a staff member who heard the fight from outside the bathroom broke up the fight, the school said. 

While some early reports claimed Nex had trouble walking after the fight, all the students involved walked away “under their own power,” the school said. A school nurse conducted health assessments on the teens who were involved in the fight, who all left with parents or guardians, according to the statement.

Sue Benedict told The Independent  that Nex had bruises on their face and eyes and scratches on the back of their head, but fell asleep that night. The next day, the teen collapsed in the living room. By the time an ambulance arrived, Nex was not breathing, and they were pronounced dead later that evening. 

Sue Benedict told The Independent the family always sought to understand Nex, who was also understanding of older family members who sometimes got their name or pronouns wrong. In announcing Nex’s death, the family used the teen’s birth name but later apologized, saying the family would ensure Nex’s chosen name would appear on their tombstone. 

“Nex did not see themselves as male or female,” Sue Benedict told the paper. “Nex saw themselves right down the middle. I was still learning about it, Nex was teaching me that.”

Superintendent Ryan Walters under fire after ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric 

After Nex’s death, some on social media blamed the state superintendent for stoking anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the state. Walters issued a statement on Tuesday saying he mourned “the loss of our student in Owasso and pray for God’s comfort for the family and the entire Owasso community.” He said he had “committed all available resources” to assist Owasso schools following Nex’s death. The Oklahoma State Department of Education did not respond to requests from The Frontier about what those resources were.

Oklahoma is not the friendliest place for kids like Nex. 

In October, Walters shared a news story on social media in which he was interviewed about his efforts to stop school districts from letting students change their gender on their school records. 

“The transgender game must stop,” Walters said on X, formerly known as Twitter. Walters was later sued for discrimination after denying two students’ gender change form request.

A month later, Walters issued a statement saying he was “working to enforce” rules that defined “two genders and protects our women and girls.” 

Last summer, after an Edmond woman sued the local school district, alleging her 15-year-old daughter was beaten by a transgender student in the girls’ bathroom, Walters shared a Fox News story about the lawsuit, calling transgenderism “gender dysphoria” and “nonsense.” 

In January, Walters appointed Raichik, a conservative firebrand perhaps better known by the Libs of TikTok pseudonym she has used on social media, to the Oklahoma Library Media Advisory Committee. Raichik has no education background, but uses her social media accounts that boasts millions of followers to out public school teachers and administrators who support LGBTQ+ students. In a story earlier this month, NBC news listed 21 different bomb threats that had followed at schools Raichik targeted, including last summer at Tulsa’s Union High School.

On Aug. 21, 2023, Raichik posted a video attacking a Union elementary school librarian who had posted a video about her use of social justice teaching. Six days of bomb threats followed at the school district. Raichik later grinned while posing for a photo holding a copy of USA Today with the headline “When Libs of TikTok posts, threats increasingly follow.”

State lawmakers consider more legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community

Lawmakers at the Oklahoma Capitol have introduced new bills targeting  the LGBTQ+  community this legislative session. 

House Bill 3120, referred to as the “Parents Bill of Rights,” would ban instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity, and, some advocates fear, would provide an avenue for schools to “out” students’ sexuality or identity to potentially unsupportive parents. The bill passed out of the House General Government Committee on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1831 is considered by advocates a “transgender erasure bill,” and would limit Oklahoma statutes to strictly defined terms of “father” or “mother.” State statutes would define gender only as “a person’s biological sex at birth.”

On Monday, Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, asked the state Legislature for a moment of silence for Nex. Turner is non-binary and also uses they/them pronouns.

“They were a student who loved nature and cared for cats, particularly their cat Zeus,” Turner said. Turner mentioned Nex’s hobbies, including watching the television show The Walking Dead or playing video games and named more than a dozen of Nex’s surviving family members.

“I don’t think it’s lost on me we lost a student far too soon in Oklahoma,” Turner told lawmakers “And that happens often (with) the rhetoric and fuel and some of the things we do here.”

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