Nex Benedict’s death shows policy failures, harms from inaction (Commentary)

This commentary was written by OK Policy’s Youth Justice Policy Analyst Jill Mencke and Data Analyst Polina Rozhkova.

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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. Year over year, bills targeting transgender individuals have surged across the country, particularly in Oklahoma which leads the nation in such measures.

In this instance, many fingers have pointed at Senate Bill 615, which was signed into law in 2022 just a few months before the start of the 2022-23 school year. This bill requires individuals to use only the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate, and it further penalizes schools with funding reductions for noncompliance. In an interview, Nex’s mother stated that Nex had endured bullying since the beginning of the 2023 school year

There is also a major question about whether school officials took sufficient action to ensure all students were in good health after the incident. When Nex returned home the day of the fight, Nex reported to their mother that the school had failed to call an ambulance or the police. Nex had arrived home with bruises over their face and eyes, and scratches on the back of their head. They died the following day. Owasso police have said the cause of death was not caused by trauma but the fight has yet been ruled out as a cause of death. Little else is known publicly. 

Authorities continue to piece together the cause of death and the full picture of what transpired when Nex had a confrontation with bullies in the high school bathroom. However, it’s clear there is a connection between Nex’s treatment at school and the harmful policies that specifically target people living with trans identities. 

Nex’s story is a case of bad policy taken to its extremes. Nex is not the first trans student in Oklahoma to suffer as a result of this harmful policy. It’s unfortunate that the ultimate tragedy happened before this issue captured the attention of people all over the world. Policymakers have a duty to their constituents to enact policies that reduce harm, not perpetuate it. It is clear that with SB 615, the deadly unintended consequences were not valued in the passage of the law.

In response to Nex’s death, some elected officials have said there is no place for bullying in Oklahoma schools and that “bullies must be held accountable.” There is little doubt that bullying occurred in that Owasso bathroom, which stemmed from the anti-trans rhetoric running rampant in recent years. 

Bullying could also be found in much more public places, including the floors of the House and Senate each time that a piece of anti-LQBTQ+ legislation was introduced and approved. Seven anti-LGBTQ+ bills are currently under consideration including House Bill 3120, which among other things, proposes prohibiting public schools from using a student’s preferred pronouns if they differ from their assigned sex at birth and imposing penalties on public school staff for inquiring about a student’s preferred pronouns. Additionally, the bill bans the discussion of consent. 

We can see the harm occurring throughout our communities as a result of laws and policies that delegitimize and eradicate the stories of marginalized people. These hateful perspectives are reinforced when students are told narratives featuring individuals with identities different from their own where they are deemed dangerous and harmful. This is evident in book bans and continued debate over removing books that “depict LGBTQ+ perspectives.”  

Oklahomans of all identities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Harmful policies may not impact lawmakers directly, but kids and families ultimately pay the price with their treatment at school, their interactions with peers and faculty, and how they are treated when the worst situation imaginable happens. A survey of nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth showed students consistently reported lower rates of bullying in schools with LGBTQ-affirming policies, spanning across various age groups, sexual orientations, and gender identities.

As children grow up, they look to adults for cues on how to act. We fail to be those role models for our children when we allow public policies that create dangerous conditions for our loved ones and our neighbors in our 2SLQBTQ+ community. We also fail them with our silence, which provides a tacit stamp of approval that tells our children hate is acceptable — either politically or socially. 

Hate is not an Oklahoma value. We owe it to folks who are too often the focus of these verbal and physical assaults. We owe it to ourselves to create communities that are safe for all Oklahomans, regardless of who they love or how they live. But most assuredly we owe it to our children to set an example of how Oklahomans can love, rather than fear, their neighbors.


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.