Transgender rights advocates gather at a vigil for Nex Benedict in Oklahoma City

Transgender rights advocates gather at a vigil for Nex Benedict in Oklahoma City

(Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

Spitting On A Kid's Grave: We Don't Want That Filth

At the first school board meeting since the assault and death of non-binary student Nex Benedict in Oklahoma, parents and advocates blasted a culture of rampant bullying of LGBTQ+ students - predictably, in a state run by GOP bullies - especially after a dubious medical report declared Benedict's death a suicide. With both a federal probe and effort to remove their hateful school superintendent underway, enraged parents told the tepid, complicit board, "You have failed...Do better."

A 2STGNC+ (Two Spirit, transgender, gender nonconforming+) student of Choctaw descent, Nex, 16, died the day after a fight in a school bathroom at Owasso High School in which three girls harassed Nex for using the bathroom; Nex poured some water on the girls, who then knocked and beat Nex to the floor, where they blacked out. After the school declined to notify police, Nex' family took them to the hospital, where they told police they'd endured a year of bullying by other students. Nex went home that day, but was rushed back to the hospital the next day and was soon pronounced dead. A few days later, Owasso police declared Nex had not died from trauma and their death "wasn’t directly related to the fight"; soon after, an interim, one-page report was released by the state's long-unaccredited medical examiner asserting, with no evidence or explanation, that Nex likely died of suicide from the “combined toxicity” of two common medications, the anti-histamine Benadryl and the anti-depressant Prozac - a cause of death medical experts said would be "very, very, very rare."

Nex' death came in a deep-red state with a GOP super-majority where anti-trans hysteria is flourishing. Nationwide, GOP lawmakers have already passed or proposed over 500 transphobic bills this year; Oklahoma leads the dystopian race with 54. Now they're considering bills to bar residents from changing sex designation on birth certificates, require schools to forbid alternative names or pronouns and assert gender an “immutable biological trait,” and ban, under a Patriotism Not Pride Act, dreaded rainbow flags. Their state school superintendent, Ryan Walters, a 38-year-old Christo-fascist culture warrior, fits right in. He's slammed "groomer" teachers and their promoting "pornography"; joined Moms For Liberty while billing taxpayers for events; appointed Libs of Tik Tok's homophobic Chaya Raichik to help censor library books; and repeatedly denied the existence of non-binary people: "There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us." Schools "treat every student with dignity and respect," he insists, but "we won't go into the transgender ideology by accepting all of those premises."

With Walters having created "a devastatingly hostile environment" for gay, trans or non-binary students, other officials have fearlessly followed suit. Thus did state Sen. Tom Woods feel free, asked at a public forum after Nex Benedict's death about connections between her assault and "some of the things Ryan Walters has said," to spew his venomous take on what he called "filth." "A child losing their life is horrible," he blathered, but "I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma...We are going to fight to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we are a Christian state, we are a moral state." They're also a state evidently intent on perpetuating the sins of the ignorant cretins, bigots and bullies who "lead" their schools, from a board that allegedly echoes them or turns the other way to a district superintendent who opened last week's meeting by prattling she was proud "that in times like this, our school community continues to come together to reflect, support one another and ensure that every student feels a sense of safety, security and belonging" - a statement that drew loud boos.

It especially drew the ire of "comedian" Walter Masterson, a political prankster who relishes bursting the bubble of hypocrisy around many right-wing stances. He's smilingly greeted Matt Gaetz by calling him a pedophile and noted, "Racism is screaming WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE PEOPLE? every time a black person gets shot"; joining Planned Parenthood protesters, he tried to hand out adoption applications and yelled, "I hate women! Can I stay now?"; trolling Moms For Liberty, he said he brought "a book filled with sexual acts, violence and mass killings to indoctrinate our children" and began reading aloud, "So the Lord tried to kill Moses..." "Apparently, people don’t feel safe here - I can’t imagine why," he began at the board meeting before citing Woods' obscene remark. "A more woke school board would see the death of a child and work to make sure it never happens again," he went on. "Not this board. This board sees a dead kid and says that's a good start...We'll spit on a kid's grave...We'll call children filth. Even the dead ones because, you know, we’re the good guys..."

Many community members likewise decried what alum Madison Hutton called Owasso High School's longstanding "culture of cruelty." "The story needs to be told and somebody needs to be held accountable," she said. "This is an opportunity to unlearn bigotry, to relearn acceptance. I refuse to accept this is who we are." The mother of a senior described printing out the district's safety policies and showing them to a group of teenagers, who laughed at them: "They were like, 'None of that happens.'" She helped organize a vigil "to show students there are people standing with them against hate...The adults in the room need to step up as the adults in the room." Several mothers said their kids had been bullied with no school response: “Our children are hurting. They are screaming for help. When will you hear them?” "Everyone out there deserves a voice. Nex deserved a voice," said a mom who was "outraged as a parent." "You take away the name, you take away the photos splashed across the media, and it's my child dying on that bathroom floor. It's everyone's child."

Collective anger grew when medical experts questioned the finding that Nex died from an overdose of Prozac and Benadryl, which pose an "extraordinarily low" risk of death. One toxicology expert said complications could lead to seizures or heart arrhythmia "but that would be very, very, very rare." Nex' family is challenging the report with new information about the assault - trauma to Nex’s head and neck, hemorrhages, scalp lacerations, bruising on the torso. GLAAD is publicizing their doubts with questions of their own: Why has the examiner's office, with a history of misconduct allegations, operated without accreditation for 14 years? Why did the school not call police after a student was beaten unconscious? Where are written protocols for this non-response? Have there been other attacks? What are schools doing about them? Etc. The federal Department of Education has opened an investigation, and over 350 advocacy groups have called for Ryan Walters' removal for "fostering a culture of violence and hate." He says "the radical left (will) stop at nothing to destroy the country" and he will "not back down to a woke mob."

"Nex deserved so much better," a fiery Nicole Gray told the school board at that meeting. "It was your job to protect them, and you failed. There is no denying of that fact. You allowed the prejudice and hate so sadly prevalent in what should be a neutral, and dare I say sacred, place of learning (to) end the life of one of your students." A nonbinary Oklahoman who "barely survived" public school 20 years ago - their eloquent tirade starts at 17.58 -- Gray recalled an apathetic system's "lip service" to stop the hate "but rarely any real measurable action taken, no matter how often it was reported." Bullying, Gray insisted, is not "a fact of life" but "a choice people make, a deliberate behavior people choose to engage in. To defeat it, kids must be taught that "other people deserve to be treated with care and respect, just as we wish to be ourselves" - and adults must affirm the lesson. Despite their supposed zero-tolerance policy, LeaAnne Wilson told the board, her three kids in Owasso schools and many others say they're regularly bullied, and the schools do nothing. "It took a student dying," she said, "for y’all to see that something is wrong.”

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