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Advocacy groups slam Oklahoma DA for not bring charges in fight involving Nex Benedict

LGBTQ advocacy groups are decrying Tulsa County District Attorney Stephen Kunzweiler’s announcement that no criminal charges will be filed in connection with the death of Nex Benedict, an Oklahoma high school student who died a day after a fight broke out in the girls’ bathroom at their school.

Kunzweiler said in a statement Thursday that he did not think charges were warranted, citing an investigation by local police and a report from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office attributing Benedict’s Feb. 8 death to suicide.

Benedict, who identified under the two-spirit, transgender and gender-nonconforming umbrella, died after ingesting a lethal amount of antihistamines and antidepressants, according to a summary report released last week by the state medical examiner’s office. The full medical examiner’s report is slated to be released publicly on March 27.

The district attorney wrote in his statement that police recovered “brief notes, written by Benedict, which appeared to be related to the suicide.”

“Although the notes do not make any reference to the earlier fight or difficulties at school, the parents indicated that Benedict reported being picked upon for various reasons while at school,” he wrote.

He added that the fight “was an instance of mutual combat” and he did not believe the state would be able to sustain its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt if criminal charges were filed.

That decision drew swift criticism from LGBTQ rights groups that said the district attorney’s office made the decision even as key pieces of information about the case remain unknown.

“Kunzweiler repeats incomplete and premature information about Nex’s cause of death. The full autopsy report is not due out until next week,” the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD said Friday in a statement. “The cause of death is also not a reason to not hold perpetrators accountable for violent behavior including beating Nex unconscious in a public school bathroom and causing Nex to be sent to the hospital.”

In body camera footage released last month by police in Owasso, Okla. — where Benedict lived with their grandmother, Sue Benedict — Benedict said they were “jumped” in a bathroom at Owasso High School on Feb. 7 by three girls they did not know.

Benedict, who used both they and he pronouns, told police in the video that they threw water at the girls after they made fun of the way Benedict and another student dressed, and the girls responded by beating them. Benedict was taken to the hospital immediately after the fight and the following day after collapsing at home.

“DA Kunzweiler’s statement offers no more evidence or insight, instead, it asks us to trust the status quo in believing a set of facts that are so violently in opposition to the lived experiences of 2STGNC+ Oklahomans,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, using the acronym for two-spirit, transgender and gender non-conforming people.

“We deserve the safety to learn here, to thrive here,” McAfee continued in a statement. “We deserve truth, transparency, and justice. And true justice does not come from a cop with a law degree. We stand in solidarity with those seeking honest answers to what happened to Nex.”

Kunzweiler’s statement, which does not mention Benedict’s gender identity, also refers to Benedict by their deadname, or the name they used before they transitioned. GLAAD in its statement called the move “harmful and completely unnecessary.”

“A statement that deadnames a trans victim as its opening sentence is one that clearly indicates the brand of justice doled out by DA Kunzweiler’s office — one that does not include or respect Two Spirit, transgender, or gender nonconforming+ (2STGNC+) people,” McAfee said.

“DA Kunzweiler’s words do have an impact on tainting public opinion as we await results of independent, ongoing investigations in the weeks ahead,” they added.

The Department of Education this month launched its own investigation into Benedict’s school district, Owasso Public Schools, at the request of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization. HRC President Kelley Robinson in a Feb. 21 letter to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the school district had failed to adequately address sex-based harassment toward Benedict.

Robinson, in a separate letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, called for the Department of Justice to investigate Benedict’s death, and the organization has called for additional investigations into the Oklahoma State Department of Education and Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction.

More than 350 LGBTQ and civil rights organizations — including HRC, GLAAD and Freedom Oklahoma — last month called on Oklahoma House leadership to remove Walters from his position, alleging the superintendant is responsible “for fostering a culture of violence and hate” against transgender and gender non-conforming people in Oklahoma.

Walters, who was elected in 2022, has characterized transgender students as a danger to their classmates and has largely embraced education policies that restrict the rights of transgender young people in Oklahoma. In January, Walters appointed Chaya Raichik — the conservative activist behind Libs of TikTok, whose posts often target LGBTQ people — to a state library advisory board.

Robinson reiterated HRC’s call for a “full and complete” investigation into Walters, the state education department and Owasso Public Schools Friday.

“Nex was failed by their school, and failed by every elected official who allowed a culture of bullying and harassment to grow unchecked,” Robinson said in a statement, responding to Kunzweiler’s decision not to file charges in the fight involving Benedict.

“We won’t stop until there is justice for Nex and for all kids — in Oklahoma and beyond,” she added.

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