U.S. education agency probes high school after teen’s death

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating allegations of discrimination and sex-based harassment at a public high school in Oklahoma where a 16-year-old nonbinary student was injured in a bathroom fight last month -- collapsing and dying the next day.

Nex Benedict, who used they/them pronouns, died Feb. 8 after being rushed to a hospital in the Tulsa suburb of Owasso. The community is in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, a conservative state where lawmakers -- including the head of public schools -- have targeted LGBTQ+ rights.

Nex's death prompted local vigils, protests and national outcry, especially from LGBTQ+ groups. The sophomore's grandmother and guardian, Sue Benedict, has said that Nex was being bullied before the altercation, and has criticized administrators at Owasso High School for not summoning police or an ambulance immediately after.

School officials said the students involved were evaluated by a nurse, with staff then notifying their parents or guardians. They have not disclosed how many students were part of the incident and what those who helped break it up said they found when they entered the girls' bathroom. The Owasso district said the details it could share were limited because of a police investigation and federal privacy laws.

The federal agency's investigation was triggered by a complaint last month from Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

"We are deeply concerned about the failure of Owasso High School to address documented instances of bullying, violence, and harassment against Nex, which occurred in earnest over the course of the previous school year," the organization's president, Kelley Robinson, wrote in a Feb. 21 letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The department Friday responded in writing and confirmed that it was looking into the Owasso Public Schools and the issues raised.

A statement from the school district late Friday said it is "committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by HRC is not supported by the facts and is without merit."

In its complaint, the Human Rights Campaign also asked the agency to investigate Oklahoma's education department and its chief, Ryan Walters, a conservative opponent of LGBTQ+ rights.

The Washington Post has requested Nex's autopsy report and preliminary findings from Oklahoma's chief medical examiner, who has yet to release them and did not respond to an inquiry Friday.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler has said he is awaiting local investigators' findings before deciding whether to file criminal charges.

Owasso police Lt. Nick Boatman has previously said that the final autopsy report could take up to six weeks.

While a search warrant indicated that police initially sought evidence of felony murder in Nex's death, the department said in a statement last month that "preliminary information from the medical examiner's office ... indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma."

Police have released school security footage as well as audio from 911 calls made by Sue Benedict once she picked Nex up at school Feb. 7. Body-camera video from a school resource officer who responded to the hospital that afternoon shows Sue Benedict detailing how Nex and a friend said they had been bullied all week by girls "making comments. 'They're calling us names, they're throwing stuff at us.'"

"Running the mouth is freedom of speech, unfortunately," the officer said. Students "can say mean, hurtful things all day long, and you got to let it roll off your shoulder."

Nex's gender identity never came up in the interview.

Nex's family hired Tulsa attorney Jacob Biby, who has said they are conducting their own investigation. Biby did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.

Some Oklahoma LGBTQ+ advocates welcomed the federal probe.

"While we knew that the gender-based bullying Nex experienced was not isolated to Owasso, the number of young people who have spoken about the harm they faced at Owasso Public Schools has created growing concerns," said Nicole McAfee, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom Oklahoma. "We are grateful that the Department of Education is taking action to help Oklahomans get the answers we deserve as we grieve Nex. And we look forward to more transparency and urgency than we have seen from investigating entities within Oklahoma."

Information for this article was contributed by Laura Meckler of The Washington Post.

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