Monday, April 15, 2024

Call for Action After Nonbinary Oklahoma Student Dies Following Alleged Bullying

HomeU.S.Call for Action After Nonbinary Oklahoma Student Dies Following Alleged Bullying

The tragic death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict has sparked outrage and calls for change across the United States. The nonbinary teenager died just one day after an altercation in a high school bathroom in Owasso, Oklahoma, which the family alleges was prompted by bullying over Benedict’s gender identity.

In the aftermath of this devastating loss, vigils and protests demanding justice, accountability, and safer school environments for LGBTQ+ youth have been held from coast to coast. However, many questions still remain unanswered about what exactly transpired in that school bathroom, and whether this heartbreaking incident could have somehow been prevented.

The Fight in the Bathroom

According to a video released by Owasso police, Benedict told officers that three female students had followed them and some friends into the bathroom on February 7th, 2024. These girls apparently began mocking Benedict’s use of they/them pronouns and pouring water on them.

Angered by this bullying, Benedict admitted to throwing water back at the girls, which then prompted them to attack. The video shows Benedict with bruises and scratches on their face and neck after this bathroom brawl. They state that one girl repeatedly smashed their head into a sink during the altercation.

Tragically, just 24 hours later, Benedict would collapse at home and have to be rushed to the hospital. After two days in the ICU, the teenager passed away on February 9th.

Conflicting Reports on Cause of Death

While an initial search warrant cited by police suggested Benedict’s death might have been linked to injuries from the school fight, authorities have since walked back that claim.

An autopsy report remains pending, but last week, Owasso Police Captain Lynnan Traughber told the media, “The preliminary result of that autopsy indicates that the death was not a direct result of injuries sustained in the fight.”

Many find this latest statement puzzling, given how proximal the altercation and Benedict’s demise seem to be. It also remains unclear whether bullying might have played an indirect role in this tragedy – an issue that LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and Benedict’s family continue pressing for answers on.

History of Bullying Alleged

Friends and family members insist Nex Benedict had been dealing with relentless harassment at school over their gender identity and decision to go by they/them pronouns.

“My baby died because of bullying. Outright just bullying,” insisted Benedict’s mother, Sue Benedict, in an interview last week. “It was these girls at school antagonizing my baby because they didn’t like my baby.”

On the released police video, Nex Benedict themself also suggests long-running bullying was taking place, telling officers that the girls had previously mocked their homemade pronoun pin, thrown food at them in the cafeteria, and tried tripping them in hallways.

School District Denies Negligence

Owasso Public Schools released a statement claiming they followed protocol by promptly reporting the bathroom incident to authorities:

“The district took immediate action by contacting the Owasso Police Department and will continue to cooperate fully as OPD investigates this tragic situation.”

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They also denied any negligence in preventing bullying, stating:

“Contrary to rumors being spread online and in the community, Owasso Public Schools is not aware of any reports of bullying made to the Owasso Public Schools Police Department or school administration regarding the interaction between the students involved in this incident.”

It remains unclear whether the district ever received reports of bullying from other channels they may not monitor as closely. Victim advocates also argue that placing the onus entirely on victims to report bullying is misguided, when power imbalances, social stigma, and privacy concerns can all discourage speaking out.

Nationwide Outcry for Answers and Change

Activists point out that LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to experience harassment and discrimination in school settings.

The most recent National School Climate Survey found that over 84% of nonbinary youth reported being verbally harassed, over 1/3 physically harassed, and 1 in 5 even physically assaulted at school in the past year for their gender identity. Rates of reported bullying and violence victimization are extremely high across all LGBTQ+ groups surveyed.

Additionally, studies show bullying and non-affirmation dramatically increase risks for depression, suicide ideation, self-harming behaviors, and trauma in this vulnerable population. Leading mental health experts argue these impacts can manifest in complex ways across domains of health and wellbeing over both the short and long-term.

In other words, bullying should not be brushed off when youth tragically pass away soon after an instance of victimization. A thorough investigation into Nex Benedict’s experiences with harassment could help provide critical answers, closure, and prevention strategies worth fighting for.

Benedict’s loved ones certainly believe bullying played a role in their death, as do leaders of many LGBTQ+ organizations. They worry signs of distress may have wrongly been dismissed by the school community because Benedict was marginalized for their gender identity. And so with heavy hearts, they publicly call for a full inquiry into the bullying allegations.

Nationwide Fight for Justice and Change

At the vigils held these past two weeks – from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Boston – tearful mourners carried signs reading “Justice for Nex”, “Protect Trans Youth”, and “Schools Unsafe for LGBTQ+ Students”. Speakers called on political leaders to pass anti-discrimination protections for marginalized children in schools.

In El Paso, Texas, one nonbinary teen who lit a candle for Benedict told reporters they currently experience same bullying that may have played a role in Nex’s passing:

“Every day all the time I get called slurs in the hallway. And teachers don’t do anything even when it happens in front of them. They just say ignore it. But I’m honestly scared I could end up like [Nex Benedict].”

With such troubling testimony in mind, politicians are facing growing demands to introduce policies that adequately safeguard LGBTQ+ youth. So far, progressive leaders have been most vocal, pointing to worrying data on disproportionate bullying, health risks, and resource barriers these teens continue battling nationwide. They argue immediate reform is long overdue – which mounting vigil turnouts seem to underscore.

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In his address to constituents last week, Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro stressed that Nex Benedict’s death has ignited grassroots activism because it symbolizes the urgent need to meaningfully combat LGBTQ+ oppression:

“This tragedy has broken many hearts but it has also lit a fire underneath people demanding an end to the bigotry and harassment still faced by young people just trying to be themselves. In memory of Nex and all the unique souls we lose from bullying and hate, we simply cannot sit back in silence any longer.”

Ongoing coverage of vigils held nationwide reveal protesters across all ages and backgrounds rising up to proclaim, “never again”.

With Benedict mourned from small rural towns to major cities, many believe this solidarity reflects society as a whole looking in the mirror. The death of this 16-year-old nonbinary Oklahoman has suddenly compelled broader self-reflection on transphobia and passive bystanding when vulnerable youth are tormented.

Now the question so many grapple with is – will that outrage and moral awakening spur impactful reform? Or will institutional inaction quell public uproar over time?

LGBTQ+ leaders caution that Nex Benedict’s name could easily fade into solemn statistic rather than become an impetus for overdue change. Similar tragedies have occurred before without resolution, accountability, or measures preventing repetition. With no binding policies shielding transgender and nonbinary children, advocacy groups stress that verbal confirmations of support mean little if schools and governments won’t take decisive action when rights are violated.

And so with bereaved loved ones now leading the charge, LGBTQ+ organizations maintain unrelenting pressure on officials – demanding substantive change under the rallying cry, “Justice for Nex”. Only sweeping anti-discrimination and anti-bullying protections, oversight measures, and cultural change, they argue, can honor Benedict’s memory.

Owasso School District Feels the Heat

While Owasso district administrators claim no negligence in Nex Benedict’s experiences, their statements have failed to temper intensifying criticism.

Given the proximity between Benedict’s assaulted at school and untimely death, many find the downplaying of bullying allegations unconscionable regardless of autopsy results showing no direct ties. Some teachers in the district have actually broken rank to express concerns administrators are dodging accountability when leadership and oversight failed to protect this victimized student.

With fervent activism keeping Benedict’s tragedy in the headlines, the Owasso district is also seeing alumni and various student groups organizing on campus to demand reassessment of anti-bullying policies.

Several pickets have formed outside Owasso High School in recent days displaying signs with messages like “Blood On Your Hands” and “Protect LGBTQ Kids”. Passing drivers honk horns in solidarity with demonstrators calling attention to the case and perceived failure to ensure Benedict felt safe, included, or able to report harassment prior to the deadly bathroom incident.

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So as public outcry continues pressuring the school system to acknowledge potential negligence, Owasso finds itself at a crossroads – either pursue an impartial third party investigation into events leading up to Nex Benedict’s tragic end, or refuse further inquiry and risk irreparable damage to the district’s reputation.

For Su Benedict and her grieving family, the choice is clear:

“I just want the school to admit they have issues with discrimination against kids who are different like [Nex] was. The only way to stop this happening again is making sure LGBTQ students know they should speak out if bullied so schools actually listen and help them. I don’t see changes happening unless Owasso owns up that something went really wrong here with addressing the bullying my baby faced. No child should ever feel so hopeless. Nex just wanted to be accepted as who [they were].”

A Devastated Family Remembers Their Bright Light

While the circumstances around 16-year-old Nex Benedict’s passing remain shrouded in controversy and mystery, those who loved this vibrant teenager want the world to remember their originality. Benedict openly identified as nonbinary last year, asking friends and family to use they/them pronouns that better reflected their gender identity. And loved ones say the teen hoped sharing their journey might help others in the LGBTQ+ community feel less alone.

Benedict’s mother says Nex radiated authenticity and lit up any room they entered:

“[Nex was] literally the light of our lives. So glowy and bright and optimistic about the future.”

Friends echo this portrayal of Benedict as someone overflowing with creative talents and passions – from visual artistry to writing poetry and song lyrics. Several describe the teenager as wise beyond their years when providing a listening ear to peers struggling with life challenges. Some who credit Benedict directly for helping them embrace their own gender identity or sexual orientation now mourn the opportunity to repay that support.

And in these remembrances, Nex Benedict’s legacy burns bright as a friend, child, and advocate whose open heart and courage to live authentically inspired hope in others.

While just 16 years old, this vibrant young Oklahoman touched countless lives in a tragically short lifetime. The calls for action in Nex Benedict’s honor envision no other youth feeling so overwhelmed by bullying and stigma that they succumb to despair.

Through dedicated activism, this vision can become reality so that Nex Benedict’s memory fuels positive change rather than sorrow alone. Because though their own light dimmed far too soon, this exceptional teenager now rallies others to ignite that same bravery, compassion, and authenticity within their communities.

The loss suffered feels senseless – but from such tragedy, Nex Benedict’s loved ones still hope brighter days emerge ahead.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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