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Outrage after Oklahoma prosecutor declines charges in Nex Benedict bullying death

Author: Christopher Wiggins

After Tulsa County District Attorney Stephen Kunzweiler’s decision Thursday not to file charges in the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender and Indigenous high school student from Oklahoma who used he, him, they, and them pronouns, a storm of advocacy and criticism has emerged from LGBTQ+ groups and community members. This wave of condemnation targets both Kunzweiler’s specific handling of the case and the broader systemic implications for the protection of LGBTQ+ youth. At the heart of the outcry are Kunzweiler’s assertions based on the medical examiner’s ruling of suicide and his own characterization of a preceding altercation as “mutual combat,” which have ignited a broader debate about systemic failures in safeguarding marginalized youth.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, was among the first to voice dissent, highlighting the decision as indicative of a systemic devaluation of the lives of Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma. “Time and time again, leaders in Oklahoma have showed that they don’t value Nex’s life, or the lives of other Indigenous and 2STGNC+ (Two Spirit, transgender, gender-noncoforming+) students. Everyone from Superintendent [Ryan] Walters and Owasso High School to the unaccredited-since-2009 state Medical Examiner’s Office, the District Attorney, and Owasso Police Department have failed Nex Benedict and failed us all,” Ellis said in a statement.

“It is critical that an independent investigation is completed and the truth about what happened to Nex, and what all marginalized youth in Oklahoma schools endure, is brought to light. We will never stop seeking justice for Nex and we will never stop holding leaders accountable to serving their communities fairly and with compassion,” she said.

GLAAD officials also said that Kunzweiler’s decision was based on incomplete and inaccurate information.

Adding to the criticism, Freedom Oklahoma condemned Kunzweiler’s use of Benedict’s deadname, a practice Nicole McAfee, Freedom Oklahoma’s executive director, described as emblematic of a justice system failing to protect the dignity of transgender, Two-Spirit, and gender-nonconforming people.

The controversy extends to the preliminary findings related to Benedict’s cause of death, with advocates and the family challenging the initial conclusions and calling for a more nuanced examination. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Oklahoma issued a summary report indicating that Benedict died from diphenhydramine and fluoxetine toxicity and ruled the death a suicide. The Advocatebrought in experts from the Maryland Poison Center, Dr. Joshua King and Dr. Masha Yemets, to provide insight into the low risk of dangerous interactions under regular use of the medications found in Benedict’s system. Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine medication known as Benadryl, used for allergies and as an over-the-counter sleep aid. Fluoxetine is a common medication used for depression and anxiety under the brand name Prozac. Yemets’s and King’s analysis, while not definitive without the full autopsy report, which is eagerly anticipated for release on Wednesday, suggests the need for a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances leading to Benedict’s death.

The anticipation of the full autopsy report has added a layer of urgency to the discourse, with hopes it will clarify the events leading to Benedict’s death and influence ongoing discussions about bullying, harassment, and the safety of LGBTQ+ students in schools.

Benedict died February 8 after being assaulted in a school bathroom by three girls the day before. After initially being sent home and taken to the hospital by their grandmother, who adopted Benedict, the teenager was found in distress the following day and ultimately died.

Moreover, Kunzweiler’s references to a note allegedly written by Benedict and the characterization of the altercation as “mutual combat” have been called out for inappropriateness and inaccuracy, respectively. Such actions are viewed as contributing to a harmful narrative that undermines the real dangers faced by LGBTQ+ youth and fails to hold accountable those responsible for violence.

As the community prepares for the full autopsy report’s release, there is a fervent call for justice and systemic reform. This tragedy has galvanized a demand for change, underscoring the critical importance of inclusivity, respect, and justice in supporting the most vulnerable.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating the conditions in the school district Benedict attended after the Human Rights Campaign sought action when the organization’s president, Kelley Robinson, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

Robinson issued this statement Friday in response to the news from the district attorney’s office: “Nex was failed by their school, and failed by every elected official who allowed a culture of bullying and harassment to grow unchecked. We reiterate our call for a full and complete investigation into the district, into state superintendent Walters and the OSDE, and into the response after Nex was attacked. We won’t stop until there is justice for Nex and for all kids – in Oklahoma and beyond.”

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Christopher Wiggins

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