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Oklahoma High School’s atmosphere of bullying exposed in wake of Nex Benedict’s death

Author: Christopher Wiggins

The tragic Oklahoma incident that has captured national attention, where a transgender teen in Owasso died, has sparked a wave of concern over the safety and treatment of LGBTQ+ students in schools across the state. Nex Benedict, 16, passed away under mysterious circumstances a day after being involved in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on February 7, an event that has since led to a broader discussion about the environment in which LGBTQ+ youth are being educated.

According to a report published Thursday in The Oklahoman, friends of Benedict recounted experiences of bullying targeted at them due to their gender identity, highlighting an ongoing issue within the school system. The altercation that preceded Benedict’s sudden death is currently under investigation, with authorities probing whether it was an act of gender-based violence. While the Owasso Police Department initially claimed that autopsy results indicated that injuries from the fight did not directly lead to Benedict’s death, the exact cause remains undetermined nearly a month later. According to reports, police are still investigating what connection the fight had to Benedict’s death.

This incident has shed light on the harsh realities faced by transgender, nonbinary, gay, and otherwise queer students in Oklahoma, particularly against the backdrop of anti-transgender rhetoric and legislation by state officials. A law enacted in 2022 mandating students to use restrooms corresponding to their birth certificate sex and a proposed bill aiming to ban discussions of gender identity and sexuality in schools contribute to a hostile atmosphere for students in the state.

Ren Stolas, 20, a transgender former student, shared their harrowing experiences. “I was bullied pretty much every day, consistently,” Stolas said. “That’s why this hurts a little extra,” they added.

Juan Pablo Alvarez, a 17-year-old senior, lamented the lack of open discussions about bullying within the school environment. “Honestly, I just wish they’d talk about bullying more because it’s a prominent issue,” Alvarez said.

These direct accounts from students who have navigated the challenging dynamics of school bullying offer a poignant insight into the daily realities faced by many, particularly those from marginalized communities.

As the Oklahoma community near Tulsa grapples with Benedict’s early February death, critics are increasingly vocal about the anti-LGBTQ+ climate fostered by Republican policies in the state, which they argue enables bullying. In a notable development, Sean Cummings, an Oklahoma City business owner and local politician, has criticized Ryan Walters, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, for contributing to a culture that encourages such bullying. Walters recently appointed Chaya Raichik, the creator of the hateful Libs of TikTok accounts on social media, to a role on a state board that oversees content in school libraries. Raichik does not live in Oklahoma or have expertise in childhood development or education. Her tweets, however, have been linked to bomb threats and other threats of violence, with those threats happening after Libs of TikTok spotlights institutions or people.

During a recent public meeting of the Oklahoma Department of Education, Cummings’s comments went viral after he accused Walters of playing a part in creating an environment that facilitated the bullying of LGBTQ+ students like Benedict.

The response from the Owasso community and beyond has been mixed. While a memorial and peaceful demonstrations call for better protections for LGBTQ+ students, some residents view the national outcry as an overreaction influenced by external advocacy groups, The Oklahoman reports. Nonetheless, former and current students have come forward with their own stories of bullying and administrative negligence, resonating with Benedict’s experience and painting a grim picture of the school’s climate.

School officials have expressed condolences and reiterated their anti-bullying stance, but specifics on any new measures taken in response to Benedict’s death remain vague. The silence from school representatives at a candlelight vigil for Benedict and the rapid removal of a makeshift memorial has only added to the community’s frustration and demand for transparency and action.

On Friday, the federal government announced an investigation, which aims to address the Oklahoma school district’s response to harassment that may have contributed to the tragic death of Benedict.

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Christopher Wiggins

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