Former students, parents speak on anti-LGBTQ bullying at Nex Benedict's school

Nex Benedict's death was ruled a suicide.

ByKiara Alfonseca ABCNews logo
Saturday, March 16, 2024

The death of LGBTQ teen Nex Benedict following a fight in a high school restroom has been ruled a suicide, shining a renewed spotlight on the intensifying environment in Oklahoma schools and anti-LGBTQ bullying.

ABC News spoke with former students and local parents, who say that the impact of anti-LGBTQ policy and rhetoric is a growing concern in Oklahoma schools like Owasso High School, where Benedict was a student.

"I was constantly fearing for my safety," said 2022 Owasso alum and trans student Riley, who requested to go by their first name for safety reasons. "Looking back, I think that if I were out (as trans) during high school, I probably wouldn't have survived."

Benedict, 16, died on Feb. 8, one day after a physical altercation between the student and others at Owasso High School. According to Benedict's family, Benedict was nonbinary and went by they/them pronouns.

Benedict's family claimed that the teen had experienced several months of bullying from other students, which began after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law in May 2022 that barred transgender and gender expansive youth from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, citing safety concerns.

Oklahoma alone has had 54 anti-LGBTQ bills pass through the legislature in the ongoing legislative session.

Research highlighted by the American Psychological Association shows that such policies and laws targeting access to health care, sports participation, and school policies have resulted in "heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide risk among the transgender community."

LGBTQ youth are at greater risk for poor mental health, bullying and violence than their non-LGBTQ peers, and are also more at risk of seriously considering suicide or attempting it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A vigil was held in Huntington Beach to honor Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old who died one day after a physical altercation with several other students at their Oklahoma school.

Researchers say that supportive policies and practices in schools protecting LGBTQ students can ease this burden and promote better health outcomes.

Owasso alumni, parents share concerns

Riley told ABC News that she was a student at Owasso High School when the recent wave of anti-transgender bills began to move through the state legislature.

"It really reaffirmed the fact that I had to just keep my head down and make it through high school," said Riley. "Because even if teachers are supportive, then like they may not even have the ability legally to be supportive of it ... There's always the fear that even safe teachers would be forced to out me or put me in an unsafe position just because of the legal circumstances."

Benedict's death forced Riley to emotionally confront aspects of her high school experience as a trans person that she hadn't processed before.

"I wasn't out in high school. A couple of people knew that I was bi, but no one knew that I was trans," said Riley. "It almost kind of makes it worse, because people will say the most vile and ridiculous stuff around me. And sometimes they'd assume that I would agree with them. And sometimes they would just say (things) not realizing that it would be hard for me."

She said that despite repeatedly sending emails to administrators when witnessing or hearing offensive language, "they've never done anything about it," she said.

Marley Hutchins, another 2022 Owasso alum who goes by they/them pronouns, said they also experienced and witnessed anti-LGBTQ bullying in the halls of Owasso High.

"The administration doesn't follow through, they don't seem to care that much about it," said Hutchins. "Which I think is also why their response to this has been so disappointing. Because they just, they won't stop repeating the same talking points. They just keep saying that they take all reports of bullying very seriously. But we're telling them that that's not true."

Hutchins said they are happy they graduated when they did, because they believe recent anti-transgender policies and rhetoric from officials has worsened the experiences of LGBTQ youth.

"I think things have gotten a lot worse, as more elected officials have been a lot more vocal, as certain elected officials have come into power, like (Oklahoma State Superintendent) Ryan Walters," Hutchins said.

In an interview with ABC News, Walters stood firm on his support of current anti-transgender policies following Benedict's death: "To make sure that all individuals are safe in a school, we want every student to be protected, we want every student to be successful. That also means we're not going to lie to students. And we're not going to push a gender ideology."

Anna Richardson, a local parent whose 17-year-old son is a senior at Owasso, told ABC News that students have told her they have little faith in the school's safety policies.

"When I printed those out and showed them to a group of teenagers, they were laughed at -- the students laughed at them," Richardson said. "And they were like, 'none of that happens.' They're like, you know, 'it doesn't make any difference. If you go tell an adult or whatever, they're not listening to us. So why even, why even bother?'"

Richardson helped organize a vigil to honor Benedict's memory. Though she said she is still learning more each day about the LGBTQ community, she held the vigil to show students that there are people in the community standing up with them against hate.

"My biggest message has always been that the adults in the room need to step up as the adults in the room," said Richardson. "We need to start leading our conversations with love and kindness."

She continued, "This behavior and patterns of quote unquote, bullying, harassment, assault, hate speech, whatever you want to label out that as -- it starts at home, it starts in our homes."

Cassidy Brown, a member of the LGBTQ community and 2009 Owasso alum, is a parent to a 2-year-old and is worried about their future in Oklahoma with the current anti-LGBTQ sentiment.

"It's scary for me to think that I could send my son to a public school where he might even get ridiculed because he has two moms," Brown told ABC News in an interview.

How state and local officials have responded

Owasso Public Schools and Oklahoma state officials are at the center of the scrutiny surrounding Benedict's death by suicide.

Owasso told ABC News that the safety and security of students is their top priority, as well as "fostering a safe and inclusive environment for everyone," said a spokesperson for the district.

"Bullying in any form is unacceptable," the statement read. "We take reports of bullying very seriously and have policies and procedures in place to address such behavior."

The district spokesperson said administrators are in the midst of a detailed review of policies, curriculum, and programs "in collaboration with our students, families, staff, and community."

The statement continued, "The results of the pending investigations by the Owasso Police Department and the Office of Civil Rights will also help to inform this process."

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has opened an investigation into Owasso Public Schools following a complaint from the Human Rights Campaign related to concerns about bullying and discrimination.

The district responded to the investigation in a statement to ABC News, stating that "the district is committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by HRC is not supported by the facts and is without merit."

However, state officials have stood by anti-trans policies and rhetoric in light of the criticism, including Walters.

Walters has said that he wants the "focus to be on the basics and education."

When asked about concerns that some students can't focus on school because of rhetoric that invalidates their identity, Walters said that he wants students to be successful and protected, but that he would not "lie" to them.

"What we see here is an effort from the left to lie about the death of this child to push an agenda and to try to push us off of our positions and our stances," Walters told ABC News. "We're not going to back down to that. We're going to continue to move the state forward in education."

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.