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Oklahoma Autopsy Finds That a Bullied Nonbinary Student Committed Suicide

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Nex Benedict | Sue Benedict

Nex Benedict, a nonbinary Oklahoma student who died on February 8, the day after a physical altercation at Owasso High School, committed suicide, according to a summary autopsy report released on Wednesday. That conclusion, along with a police interview recorded the day of the fight, sheds further light on an incident that sparked outrage from critics of Oklahoma’s transgender policies, which they said had encouraged the sort of bullying that Nex encountered at school.

After Nex’s death, The New York Times and The Independent specifically blamed a 2022 state law that requires students to use restrooms that correspond with the sex “identified on the individual’s original birth certificate.” The Independents headline explicitly drew a connection between Nex’s death and that law: “Oklahoma Banned Trans Students From Bathrooms. Now Nex Benedict Is Dead After a Fight at School.”

The Times story repeatedly highlighted the bathroom law, noted that the fight happened “in a girls’ bathroom,” and added that “advocates for nonbinary and transgender students said that the state’s policy on gender and bathrooms had led to more reports of confrontations in schools.” Reporters J. David Goodman and Edgar Sandoval quoted Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, who said “that policy and the messaging around it [have] led to a lot more policing of bathrooms by students,” causing students to wonder, “Do you belong here?”

Both stories omitted a crucial fact that made that framing highly implausible: Nex, who preferred they/them pronouns, was biologically female, meaning they were complying with the bathroom rule at the time of the fight. Furthermore, Nex’s own account of the incident during a police interview at a local hospital the day of the altercation indicates that the fight’s location was incidental.

Nex, who was a 16-year-old sophomore, said three freshman girls with whom they had never interacted before had a problem with them and their friend “because of the way that we dress,” although the basis for that supposition is unclear. The specific impetus for the fight was the three freshman girls’ mockery of the way that Nex and their friend were laughing. “They had said something like, ‘Why do they laugh like that?’” Nex told a police officer. “They were talking about us in front of us. And so I went up there and I poured water on them. And then all three of them came at me.”

The freshman girls “grabbed onto my hair,” Nex said. “I grabbed onto them. I threw one of them into a paper towel dispenser. And then they got my legs out from under me, got me on the ground, and started beating the shit out of me. And then my friend tried to jump in and help, but I’m not sure—I blacked out.” The school district said other students and a staff member broke up the fight after a couple of minutes.

The officer explained that Nex’s grandmother and guardian, Sue Benedict, who was present for the interview, could file a police report about the incident. But under the law, he warned, the other students could file a police report against Nex, since Nex had initiated the fight. “They put their hands on you, and it was unwanted,” he said. “I will also tell you, though, that…what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, meaning the way the courts are going to look at it is it’s a mutual fight. So both parties are victims, but both parties are also suspects in this. You get what I’m saying? You’re an offender as well.”

Addressing Sue Benedict, the officer said he would “absolutely” take a report if that is what she wanted. “But I’m just letting you know, if the other party wants to do the same thing…the assault will be on her as well, because she first assaulted. She was the one who initiated it, essentially, because you’ve got freedom of speech…[but] the moment she threw that water, you’ve now assaulted somebody. You’ve made the first jab. It doesn’t make it right, but they defended themselves, quote unquote. You retaliated back. Now we’ve got this back and forth, when both parties had an equal opportunity to separate.”

These details help explain why no police reports or charges were initially filed and why, according to Sue Benedict, Nex was suspended from school for two weeks. Although the school district won’t publicly discuss individual cases, the freshman girls presumably received a similar punishment. School officials said any students implicated in “physical altercations” would be subject to “disciplinary consequences.”

None of this excuses the bullying that Sue Benedict said Nex had repeatedly suffered at school. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be strong and look the other way, because these people don’t know who you are,’” Benedict told The Independent. “I didn’t know how bad it had gotten.” There are legitimate questions about how school officials responded, assuming they were aware that other students were picking on Nex. But the connection between this particular incident and Oklahoma’s policies is speculative and tenuous.

“It has never been clear whether Nex’s gender identity was a factor in the altercation in the school bathroom,” Sandoval now concedes. But his earlier story strongly implied that state policies, and the bathroom law in particular, had precipitated the fight, even though Nex was complying with the law at the time—a fact that Sandoval and Goodman did not mention, perhaps because that would have required acknowledging Nex’s “birth gender.”

Two weeks after the altercation, the Owasso Police Department said preliminary autopsy results indicated that Nex “did not die as a result of trauma.” Yesterday a police spokesman said investigators “observed many indications that this death was the result of suicide” but did not say so publicly because they “did not wish to confirm that information without the final results being presented by the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office.” Although it’s not clear what those indications were, Nex’s demeanor during the police interview was completely calm, giving no sign that they were distraught, let alone upset enough to contemplate suicide.

The summary autopsy report describes the manner of death as “suicide” and the “probable cause of death” as “diphenhydramine and fluoxetine combined toxicity.” Those drugs are, respectively, the active ingredients in antihistamines such as Benadryl and antidepressants such as Prozac. An overdose of diphenhydramine by itself can be lethal, with deaths reported at doses higher than 20 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Potentially dangerous interactions between diphenhydramine and fluoxetine have been noted. The one-page autopsy summary does not indicate the level of either drug in Nex’s blood.

If Nex did in fact commit suicide, we can surmise that the bullying they encountered at school had something to do with it. Critics argue that Oklahoma’s transgender policies—which in addition to the bathroom law include an explicit prohibition of gender-neutral designations on birth certificates and a ban on hormone or surgical treatment of transgender minors—have contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance that fosters bullying. “Whether or not it was a suicide,” said Rep. Mauree Turner (D–Oklahoma City), a nonbinary state legislator, “the rhetoric that we share on this House floor, the bills that we write—not even the bills that we pass—but the bills that we write, have a very detrimental effect on the youth of Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, a Republican who decries “radical gender theory” that “puts our girls in jeopardy,” called Nex’s death “tragic for the family, the community, and our state.” But he complained that “LGBTQ groups” are “pushing a false narrative,” adding that “I remain, more than ever, committed to never backing down from a woke mob.”

The Times suggests that Walters is partly responsible for the intolerance that Nex reportedly suffered. But it seems unlikely that teenagers pay much attention to pronouncements by politicians like him, and they hardly need official encouragement to pick on students they view as different, whether because of how they dress, laugh, or otherwise present themselves.

Official discouragement of such harassment nevertheless could make a difference if it is effectively communicated and implemented within schools. “The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence,” the family said in a statement last month, “and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy.”

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