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Tatyana Tandanpolie

Nonbinary teen dies after bathroom fight

A 16-year-old nonbinary student in a small Oklahoma town died after what local police said was a "physical altercation" in a high school bathroom, sparking outcry from LGBTQ rights groups who assert the student was attacked because of their gender identity.

The severity of the fight and student Nex Benedict's death a day later have shrouded the Owasso law enforcement and the school district in nationwide scrutiny, according to The New York Times

No arrests had been made in connection with the Feb. 7 altercation in an Owasso High School girls' bathroom as of Wednesday afternoon. Police told the media that the case was still under investigation. 

In a statement on Tuesday, the Owasso Police Department said that a report on the incident had not been filed until after Benedict had been taken to a hospital by relatives later that day, noting that a school resource office then went to the hospital. Benedict was later discharged and returned home, but was hurried back to the facility by Owasso medics the next day and died there, police said. 

“It is not known at this time if the death is related to the incident at the school or not,” the statement said.

The police said in a new statement on Wednesday that initial information from a complete autopsy performed by the medical examiner “indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma." The statement did not name a cause of death because they are awaiting pending test results.

The school said in a statement that no other student involved in the altercation was considered to be in need of outside medical attention, the Times reported.

The district issued a statement Tuesday addressing "speculation and misinformation" about the nature of the altercation, noting that it had lasted less than two minutes before being broken up by other students and a staff member "who was supervising outside of the restroom.” All involved students “walked under their own power to the assistant principal’s office and nurse’s office," the statement read. 

Benedict, who used they/them pronouns, had been bullied at Owasso High School for being trans since the beginning of the 2023 school year, just months after a 2022 law passed in Oklahoma forcing students to use only the bathroom that aligned with their genders assigned at birth, their mother told The Independent

Mother Sue Benedict told the outlet, that she had encouraged the high school sophomore through the bullying. 

“I said ‘you’ve got to be strong and look the other way, because these people don’t know who you are’,” Benedict told the outlet, adding: “I didn’t know how bad it had gotten.”

The bullying allegedly escalated on Feb. 7 when Nex and another trans student at the school had been in a fight with three older girls in a girls' bathroom. Nex, according to the Owasso Police Department, suffered severe head injuries.

Benedict told The Independent that after the school notified her of the incident, she arrived to find Nex with bruises on their face and eyes and scratches on the back of their head. Nex told Benedict that they had been knocked to the ground during the altercation and hit their head on the floor, Benedict told the outlet. 

After taking Nex to the hospital for treatment and speaking with the school resource officer at the facility, Nex returned home and went to bed with a sore head, Benedict said. On the afternoon of Feb. 8, Nex collapsed in the family living room while getting ready to leave for an appointment with Benedict.

Medics for the Owasso Fire Department arrived at the home shortly after and found Nex had stopped breathing. They were taken to the emergency room where they were later declared dead. 

Following the Owasso police department's Wednesday statement, the family released a statement through their attorneys declaring they would conduct an independent investigation into Nex's death. The facts surrounding the student's death, some of which are not available to the public, were "troubling at best," the family said, per The Independent. 

The Benedicts are also praying for “meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy," the statement added, per The Times.

Reports of Nex's death renewed criticism of the Oklahoma bathroom legislation and sparked outrage among LGBTQ advocates who decry the incident as a "possible hate-motivated attack."

“That policy and the messaging around it has led to a lot more policing of bathrooms by students,” Nicole McAfee, the executive director of trans and gay rights organization Freedom Oklahoma, told The New York Times. Students whose gender expression does not present as obviously male or female get questioned by other students, McAfee added, according to The Times. “There is a sense of, ‘do you belong in here?’”

Freedom Oklahoma further linked Nex's death to the "hateful rhetoric spewed by leaders in our state” and the Libs of TikTok account run by far-right influencer Chaya Raichik, who has made a number of anti-trans posts targeting public school teachers and librarians, including one from 2022 directed at an Owasso High School educator that Nex admired. Last month, Oklahoma's Republican superintendent of public schools appointed Raichik to the state's library advisory committee. 

The Benedict family, who have roots in the Choctaw Nation, welcomed discussions and questions of gender and identity, the Independent reported. 

“I was very open with my children to be who and what they thought was best,” Benedict told the outlet, adding: “They could talk to me about anything, as long as that respect goes both ways. A child needs to figure out who they are and what they want to be, and you cannot force it upon them.”

Nex's sister Malia Pila, who is also a member of the LGBTQ community, told The Independent that Nex's gender identity “was not an issue nor anything that anybody cared about" in their household.  

Nex, Benedict said, was a straight-A student with a love for drawing, reading and playing video games, and a devotion to their cat Zeus. 

“I was so proud of Nex. They were going some place, they were so free,” she said.

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