In the Know: Nex Benedict’s death shows policy failures, harms from inaction | House bill reverses will of voters on justice reform | Gov. signs compact with Cherokee Nation

In The KnowIn The Know is your daily briefing on Oklahoma policy-related news. Inclusion of a story does not necessarily mean endorsement by the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Some stories included here are behind paywall or require subscription. OK Policy encourages the support of Oklahoma’s state and local media, which are vital to an informed citizenry. Subscribe to In The Know and see past editions.

New from OK Policy

Nex Benedict’s death shows policy failures, harms from inaction (Commentary): Year over year, bills targeting transgender individuals have surged across the country, particularly in Oklahoma which leads the nation in such measures. The recent death of Nex Benedict — a nonbinary student from Owasso High School who died a day after a confrontation with bullies — has garnered worldwide attention because advocates have been warning that the recent uptick in hateful anti-2SLQBTQ+ laws would create an atmosphere where people could be hurt or killed. [Jill Mencke & Polina Rozhkova / OK Policy]

Policy Matters: When is it OK to hate?: The death of Nex Benedict — a nonbinary student at Owasso High School who died after a confrontation with bullies at school — has caused a lot of soul searching. How could this have happened in our community? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? Have I done enough? We have not. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

Oklahoma News

Oklahoma House bill reverses vote of the people on criminal justice reform: The Oklahoma House on Wednesday voted to reverse the will of the people. House Bill 3694, by Rep. John George, R-Newalla, reverses a portion of State Question 780, which voters approved in 2016 by 58.23%. It raised the dollar amount to $1,000 from $500 for theft to be classified as a felony. [Oklahoma Voice]

  • Oklahoma bill lowering threshold for felony theft passes House [Journal Record]
  • Oklahoma House votes to roll back key criminal justice reform measure [Tulsa World]

Oklahoma Nonbinary Student’s Death Shines a Light on Families’ Legal Recourse for Bullying: Laws in most states require schools to have anti-bullying policies and procedures, but most do not give families a right to sue over ineffective responses. Twenty four states have anti-bullying laws or regulations that specifically include LGBTQ+ students in their protections, while 23 states—including Oklahoma—have laws restricting the rights of those students in some way. [Education Week]

  • A month later, we still don’t know what killed Nex Benedict [Vox]

Oklahoma returns to progressive roots with minimum wage petition: One of the most conservative states in the U.S. moves closer to a possible minimum wage hike after the Oklahoma Supreme Court allowed a petition to move forward Monday. State Question 832 is an initiative petition that would raise the minimum wage periodically to $15 by 2029 and then set further increases to the Consumer Price Index. Monday’s ruling means petitioners will have less than 90 days to gather 92,262 signatures to place the measure on the ballot in November. [The Black Wall Street Times]

  • Petition to increase minimum wage: Signature-gathering OK’d by Oklahoma Supreme Court [Tulsa World]

Protesters rally against Westboro picketers in Owasso: ‘They can take their hate elsewhere’: Westboro, an extremist group from Topeka, Kansas, known for protesting funerals of soldiers and other events, picketed two Owasso school sites in the wake of Nex Benedict’s high-profile death last month. Dozens of activists confronted seven members of Westboro, first outside Owasso Public Schools’ Education Service Center, then outside Owasso High School, where hundreds more assembled to demonstrate against the radical group. [Tulsa World]

State Government News

Oklahoma Senate bill seeks to protect private school tuition tax credits from debt payments: Senate Bill 1477, by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, would address concerns that state taxpayers might have about state funds, extended to people in the form of Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credits, being used to pay off recipients’ debts rather than paying for school expenses for their children. [Tulsa World]

New turnpike authority director set to review authorized new toll roads: Oklahoma Turnpike Authority commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved naming Joe Echelle as director following the resignation of prior director Tim Gatz. Echelle said he wants to do a review of the previously authorized routes. ACCESS Oklahoma opponents sued unsuccessfully to stop new toll road construction, arguing it did not follow the routes outlined by lawmakers in the 1980s. [The Oklahoman]

Rep. Kyle Hilbert discusses goals for new role as Oklahoma Speaker of the House: This week, Oklahoma House Republicans elected the youngest house speaker in state history. Representative Kyle Hilbert of Bristow will be stepping in for Charles McCall who is the longest serving speaker in state history. [News6]

Opinion, Former State Budget Secretary Mike Mazzei: Oklahoma budget projections are not adding up, could lead to repeated mistakes: I have been looking at the annual Proposed FY 2025 Revenue Certification by the Oklahoma State Board of Equalization, and I’m starting to wonder if their numbers reflect reality. There have been occasions in the past when the numbers were far off the mark, and the current projections give me an eerie reminder of past mistakes. [Mike Mazzei / Tulsa World]

Opinion: Bill meant to protect Oklahoma youths from social media ills could actually cause more harm: An Oklahoma House bill seeking to reverse the negative effects of social media on youth does not address root causes and could exacerbate the problem if enacted. House Bill 3914 passed the Government Modernization and Technology Committee, and it would ban minors under 16 from using social media and would mandate parental consent for those who are 16 and 17 before creating an account. [Noah J. Coffman / Tulsa World]

Editorial: Oklahoma lawmakers must do more to ensure DHS can recruit, retain enough foster homes for vulnerable children: Oklahoma is moving backward in its improvements made to foster care, with an urgent problem developing in not having enough foster homes. Now is the time for state lawmakers to invest in resources to help current foster homes stay open and to recruit new foster families. [Editorial / Tulsa World]

Tribal Nations News

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signs compact with Cherokee Nation, state’s largest tribe: The Cherokee Nation tribal council will vote Monday whether to approve a new tobacco tax compact with the state of Oklahoma. The compact stands to become the seventh state-tribal agreement successfully negotiated by the governor’s office since January, and it will likely be the biggest. [The Oklahoman]

Voting and Election News

Oklahoma Republican turnout rises while Democratic numbers plummet from 2020 primary to 2024: President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump each sailed to victory in Oklahoma’s presidential preference primaries. Only 91,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary this year compared to 304,000 in 2020. [The Oklahoman]

Opinion: Steven Rosenfeld: 20 years of data show no link between mailed ballots and illegal voting: As the 2024 presidential cycle revs up and the presumptive GOP nominee keeps attacking elections, it is worth revisiting the most extensive national study by political scientists that looked at whether mailed-out ballots have any relation to voter fraud. In a word, their answer was “no.” That conclusion was based on comparing incidents of illegal voting during the two decades before the 2020 presidential election to the increasing use of mailed-out ballots during that time. [Steven Rosenfeld / Tulsa World]

Health News

Ageism in health care is more common than you might think, and it can harm people: That tendency to see older adults as “other” doesn’t just result in loud greetings, or being called “honey” while having your blood pressure taken, both of which can dent a person’s morale. Researchers and geriatricians say that instances like these constitute ageism – discrimination based on a person’s age – and it is surprisingly common in health care settings. It can lead to both overtreatment and undertreatment of older adults, says Dr. Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. [KOSU]

Criminal Justice News

Death row inmate Michael DeWayne Smith denied clemency despite tearful plea: Death row inmate Michael DeWayne Smith wept Wednesday as he pleaded for mercy, saying again he is innocent of two 2002 murders despite confessing to police. The parole board was not swayed, voting 4-1 to deny clemency. [The Oklahoman]

  • Oklahoma panel denies clemency for death row inmate, paves way for lethal injection [Public Radio Tulsa]

Opinion: Keeping track of good and bad criminal justice bills proposed by Oklahoma lawmakers: The first substantive deadline for bills in the Oklahoma Legislature this session was Feb. 29. The first deadline acts as a funeral for many promising policy pieces that simply did not make the cut to get a committee vote. If a bill does not pass this first hurdle, then the bill is dead for the remainder of session. [Colleen McCarty / Tulsa World]

Housing & Economic Opportunity

Breaking Camp: Lawmakers Take Aim at Homeless Encampments on State Land: Two bills would outlaw sleeping on state land that isn’t a designated campsite. Supporters say it’s for safety. Opponents say there are better ways. [Oklahoma Watch]

  • Bills imposing fines or jail time for homeless encampments move forward in Oklahoma Legislature [News9]

Impact Tulsa presents research to City Council addressing connection between evictions, chronic absenteeism: Dr. Delia Kimbrel, head of research and data strategy at Impact Tulsa, said 4,400 evictions have been filed against TPS families over the last three and a half years. She said a total of 3,000 TPS students, which is 2% of the district on average each year, experience an eviction filing. She said the number of evictions is even higher for younger kids in Pre-K and Kindergarten as well as students of color. [Fox23]

Moore is a top 10 market for first-time home buyers. Is post-tornado development a cause?: reports the Oklahoma City suburb is one of the top housing markets in the country for first-time homebuyers. Based on numerous criteria, and a cap of one city per metropolitan area “to allow for a greater diversity of options,” ranks Moore as the No. 8 market for first-timers in 2024. [The Oklahoman]

Economy & Business News

More electric vehicle charging stations could be coming to Oklahoma’s interstates: More fast charging stations for electric vehicles could be coming to Oklahoma as the state Department of Transportation (ODOT) considers sites for federally-funded chargers. [KOSU]

Oklahoma-based diner chain failed to pay $54K in overtime wages, Department of Labor says: In an investigation of 53 locations of the Boom-A-Rang chain by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division locations failed to include employee monthly performance bonuses when computing overtime wages, a requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act. [The Oklahoman]

Education News

Oklahoma paraprofessionals provide critical student services — but many are barely making ends meet: Paraprofessionals do not have the same credentials as certified teachers, but they have to undergo certain training — and more so for those who work in special education. Paraprofessionals who spoke with StateImpact for this story reported taking home about $1,000-1,500 every month. The Federal Poverty Level for a family of two last year was an annual income of $19,720. [KGOU]

  • Could Oklahoma school support staff soon be receiving a one-time stipend from the state? [The Oklahoman]

New Oklahoma education secretary ready to bring unique view to governor’s Cabinet: Picture a wooden table with cracks running down its four legs. Pressure bears down from above as a need for reinforcement grows. That’s how Gov. Kevin Stitt’s new education secretary Nellie Tayloe Sanders describes the state of Oklahoma’s public school system. [Oklahoma Voice]

Local Headlines

  • Final approval given for construction of new Broken Arrow amphitheater [Tulsa World]
  • OKC Metropolitan Library CEO announces resignation in May [The Oklahoman]
  • Proposed $800 million data center in east Tulsa clears important procedural vote [Tulsa World]
  • Say hello to I-335 and I-344: turnpikes around Oklahoma City to get numerical designations [KOSU]
  • USPS seeks public comment about moving mail processing solely to Oklahoma City [Tulsa World]

Quote of the Day

“We are all responsible, especially those of us who either sat silently or didn’t bring our full power to bear against measures that cause fear and hatred in our schools.”

– Shiloh Kantz, Executive Director of OK Policy, writing about the responsibility of all Oklahomans to keep every child safe in schools following the death of Nex Benedict, a non-binary student at Owasso High School who died after a confrontation with bullies at school. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

Number of the Day


Percentage of LGBTQ youth who reported that recent politics negatively impacted their well-being either sometimes (49%) or a lot (41%). [2022 Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health in Oklahoma / The Trevor Project]

Policy Note

Bullying and Suicide Risk among LGBTQ Youth: These findings indicate that bullying of LGBTQ youth remains a significant area of concern, particularly among middle school students, students who are transgender or nonbinary, and Native/Indigenous students. Our data pointed to rates of electronic bullying that exceeded those of in-person bullying. Previous research has found states with anti-bullying laws that specifically consider sexual orientation to be associated with lower odds of student suicide attempts compared to states with anti-bullying laws that do not mention LGBTQ identities [The Trevor Project]

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Kandis West is a communications professional with more than 15 years of experience. Most recently, she served as the Communications Director for the Oklahoma House Democratic Caucus. She spent nine years in the Olympia/Tacoma area of Washington organizing compensation campaigns for teachers for the Washington Education Association. Kandis has a proven track record of increasing community engagement, public awareness and media exposure around the most pressing issues that impact citizens. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism.