Vigil held in OC to honor nonbinary student who died after altercation at Oklahoma school

"Nex Benedict's story ... that's the story of every trans and nonbinary person here in Orange County."

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Saturday, February 24, 2024
OC vigil honors nonbinary teen who died after school fight in Oklahoma
A vigil was held in Huntington Beach to honor Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old who died one day after a physical altercation with several other students at their Oklahoma school.

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (KABC) -- A special vigil was held in Huntington Beach Friday to honor Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old who died one day after a physical altercation with several other students at their Oklahoma school.

The event was organized by the group Huntington Beach Pride at the Pier. Nex's death has struck a chord nationwide with 2SLGBTQ groups and allies who are demanding answers.

2SLGBTQ includes Two Spirit, an umbrella term used to describe a third gender in Native and Indigenous communities. Nex's mother is a registered member of the Choctaw Nation.

Police have said that Nex's death was not a result of physical trauma from the physical altercation. While the family awaits the full results of the autopsy and toxicology reports for more insight into the circumstances surrounding their death, vigils have been planned all across the country this weekend.

"I woke up to a text message that said, 'I'm so afraid of getting a call from my school that my kid has been beaten to death,'" said the vigil's organizer Kanan Durham. "That's a reality for people here in Orange County, so yes, you might look at this and go, 'This happened a world away. This happened several states, a different time zone,' but Nex Benedict's story, that's the story of every trans and nonbinary person here in Orange County."

The family noted that Nex's bullying had begun after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law in May 2022 that barred transgender and gender expansive youth from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, citing safety concerns.

Vice President Kamala Harris and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre were latest figures to speak out regarding on Benedict's death.

"My heart goes out to Nex Benedict's family, friends, and their entire community," said Harris. "To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you, and you are not alone."

Jean-Pierre, the first openly gay White House press secretary, addressed the tragedy at the start of the Friday White House briefing.

"Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school," said Jean-Pierre. "I know that for many LGBTQ+ students across the country, this may feel personal and deeply, deeply painful. There's always someone you can talk to if you're going through a hard time and need support."

Stitt has also banned the use of nonbinary gender markers on IDs, restricted gender-affirming care for trans youth and banned transgender girls from participating in girls' sports, citing concerns about fairness.

Critics have long warned that legislation targeting the 2SLGBTQ community could lead to discrimination and further marginalization.

Research from the CDC has shown that LGBTQ youth consistently report higher rates of bullying, discrimination and threats of violence, making them more likely to miss school, experience suicidal ideations and experience depression or anxiety.

"The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for meaningful change, wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy," said Nex's family in a statement to ABC News.

"The Benedict Family calls on all school, local, state and national officials to join forces to determine why this happened, to hold those responsible to account and to ensure it never happens again."

Owasso Public Schools declined to comment on the investigation into Nex's death, but told ABC News that, "safety and security of our students is our top priority and we are committed to fostering a safe and inclusive environment for everyone."

"Bullying in any form is unacceptable," the statement read. "We take reports of bullying very seriously and have policies and procedures in place to address such behavior ... We encourage anyone who witnesses or experiences bullying to speak up and report it to a parent, teacher, coach, administrator or any trusted adult. Individuals can also share their concerns and report bullying, even anonymously, by visiting the district's Bullying Prevention page."

The investigation by Owasso Police is ongoing. The Owasso Police Department has said Owasso High School and Owasso Public Schools have been cooperative in the investigation.

A final cause and manner of death will be determined by the State Medical Examiner's Office.

The Human Rights Campaign is demanding federal investigations into whether protections for LGBTQ students were violated in Nex's case. The organization sent letters to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice asking for a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Nex's death.

"Nex's life demands justice," the letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland read. "The Department has various tools available for addressing anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and violence, including through the bringing of a hate crimes investigation and potentially charges that could help hold the perpetrators of these horrific acts against Nex accountable for their hate-fueled violence. In addition, the Department should work with the Department of Education to support their assessment of violations of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause."

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis is also demanding answers.

"The death of Nex Benedict must be fully investigated and accurately reported for the necessary justice their family seeks and for the safety of every LGBTQ student and their peers," Ellis said in a statement to ABC News.

It continued, "Nex's death followed a brutal beating in the school bathroom, after reports of bullying at school, after years of targeted, harmful and discriminatory anti-LGBTQ policy and legislation that continue to make all students less safe."

Local organizations -- including Transgender Advocacy Coalition of Oklahoma, Freedom Oklahoma, and Oklahomans for Equality -- are holding vigils across the state and country throughout the weekend starting Friday evening so the 2SLGBTQ community can honor Nex's memory.

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin and Tesfaye Negussie contributed to this report.