A nonbinary teen is dead. The cops aren't helping.

Nex Benedict deserved so much better.

via Freedom Oklahoma

UPDATE 2/26/14: Friends of Nex’s told NBC News that Nex “primarily went by he/him pronouns at school but also used they/them pronouns, which Nex's family also used.” They also confirmed that he was transgender. I’ve updated this story to reflect those facts, which were not clear at the time of publishing.

There is so much to say about Nex Benedict. But first and foremost, he should be alive.

There are few things that can be stated with certainty at this point: Nex, a nonbinary student in Owasso, Oklahoma, was physically attacked by three classmates in a girls bathroom on February 7th. He was suspended for two weeks and sent home, then taken to the hospital by a family member, and discharged. The very next day, he died. He was 16 years old. 

Some stories are so sad that I try to bury myself in reporting, hoping that the details will help rationalize or explain how something so terrible could happen. I’ve spent the last three days emailing and calling the Owasso Police Department, Owasso Public Schools, and emailing with local parents trying to get more clarity into how an otherwise healthy teenager just dies. I’ve felt desperate for a shred of evidence that might help ease the pain of my LGBTQIA+ friends. However, my reporting has only helped confirm one thing: The state killed Nex Benedict.

Per the Washington Post:

This year, [Oklahoma] legislators already have proposed more than 50 anti-LGBTQ+ laws — more than any other state, according to the ACLU.

The man who heads public education in Oklahoma is also a vocal critic of LGBTQ rights. Superintendent Ryan Walters appointed Chaya Raichik — the conservative activist behind Libs of TikTok, which has targeted LGBTQ-friendly teachers at Owasso schools — to a state library advisory board.

And per The Daily Beast: “Last year, Walters released a ‘public service’ video in which he described being trans as ‘an assault on the truth’ and said, ‘We have injected radical gender theory and telling kids that they might be other genders. It’s dangerous. It puts our girls in jeopardy.’”

In 2022, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed legislation requiring public school students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificate. That same year, he signed another law banning nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates.

Amid the flurry of conflicting information and grief, I’ve decided the most useful thing I can contribute in this moment is to walk you through my back and forth with the Owasso Police Department. I hope to illustrate their evasiveness, as well as how they appear to be teeing up a counter-narrative. 

I’ve been in touch with Dan Yancey, Chief of Owasso PD, since Tuesday about the investigation into Nex’s death. When I first reached out, he sent a boilerplate response with the early bullet points summarizing their investigation. Here’s the abbreviated version, a mixture of paraphrasing and direct quotes from his email:

  • On February 7th, at approximately 3:30 p.m., the Owasso PD was called to a local hospital in reference to a student—Nex—who was part of a physical altercation at the local high school that day

  • The department was aware Nex was rushed back to the hospital the next day where he was pronounced dead. 

  • Police said they didn’t know at the time if the death was related to the incident at the school or not. They said a thorough investigation was being conducted and were awaiting an autopsy report and toxicology results.

When I pressed for further details on Tuesday, I received no response. I also asked about the accuracy of a statement and timeline sent out by the school district Tuesday afternoon. Yancey said he couldn’t say. Wednesday morning, noting that it had been two full weeks since Nex died, I asked Yancey, in not so many words, what the fuck is going on? I also asked if he’d seen these texts Nex had sent to a family member hours after he was attacked.

And here was his response:

Putting aside the fact that being related to a cop should have no bearing on the thoroughness of an investigation (Nex’s sister is married to an Owasso officer), I naturally wanted examples of the supposedly “mostly false” information being shared. “My job is to tell the truth, and I certainly would not want to share anything inaccurate,” I told him. He replied that he could tell me more in a couple of hours or by end of day.

I tried calling him Wednesday afternoon, but no answer. He then emailed me back saying he was busy dealing with the threats made against the school and staff, along with the previous bullet points. However, a new one had been added at the bottom and highlighted.

My initial question for him was, if the initial autopsy results said the cause of death wasn't trauma, what did it indicate happened? “We suspect what happen but unfortunately I can’t release what happen until the tox and other test results come back, sorry.” (Typos are his own.) When I asked for the medical examiner’s definition of trauma, I received no response. I was then connected with a public information officer at the department who has yet to respond to my questions.

At this point I feel like I’m gazing over a cliff—one from which Owasso police and schools had just pushed Nex. It’s become very clear who the cops are trying to protect, and it certainly isn’t the child who got beat up at school and died the next day. The mentions of waiting for the “tox” report have awoken a squeaky wheel that began to turn—one meant to make it seem as if Nex didn’t die because his head was slammed against the floor, but because of some personal failing. It makes me think of George Floyd and the way racists tried to paint his murder as the result of drugs

As for what comes next, Nex’s family released a statement Wednesday night saying they were doing some independent investigating. They didn’t say whether they’d be ordering an independent autopsy.

“On February 7th, 2024, the Benedict Family sent their child, Nex Benedict, to Owasso High School, trusting, like any parent or family member should be able to, that it was a safe environment for their loved one,” the family said in the statement through a lawyer. “While at Owasso High School, Nex was attacked and assaulted in a bathroom by a group of other students. A day later, the Benedict's beautiful child lost their life.”

It’s easy for some to dismiss this as the backwards ideology of red states who’ve always been behind the curve on human and civil rights. But these dynamics aren’t just at play in Oklahoma: they’re everywhere. 

Just yesterday, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, announced an executive order for his Long Island district that is directly connected to parts of New York City. The order bans transgender athletes from competing at any county-run athletic facilities. It’s believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

As I reported for HuffPost last year, even close suburbs of our most liberal cities aren’t immune to forces of evil who claim to be protecting children but actually put them in grave danger. These children need the loud voices of allies more than ever as the country continues to devalue their lives.

I’ll leave you with words from Evan Urquhart, an amazing trans journalist who has taught me so much and whose newsletter, Assigned Media, I urge you to subscribe to. Here’s part of what he wrote yesterday:

As I wait, I wonder: Are there any answers about what happened to Nex that would satisfy me? This was a child, bullied and perhaps killed by other children. If anti-LGBTQ+ hate did play a role in Nex’s bullies’ choice of targets, it was hate stoked by adults. Even if the bullies are held accountable the adults who taught them hate will see no consequences.

That’s if the bullies are held accountable at all. The local police department seems determined to exonerate them even before all the information is known, and so does much of the public. Anti-bullying is out. The free speech of bullies to target queer youth, children and adults, online and off, has become a more fashionable cause for the mainstream.

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