Nex Benedict’s death in Oklahoma prompts federal investigation. What happens now?

The Department of Education’s federal investigation into the death of Oklahoma 16-year-old Nex Benedict could take months and yield potentially unsatisfying results for advocates who want to see big changes in how LGBTQ young people are treated in schools.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched the investigation last week in response to a Feb. 21 letter from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, that accused Benedict’s school district of failing to adequately respond to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the student’s death on Feb. 8, the day after getting into a fight in the girls’ restroom.

Rachel Perera, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, said its typical for OCR to respond quickly to reports of civil rights violations — the department’s policy is to probe any complaint that alleges a form of discrimination — but it doesn’t often begin its investigations with something as devastating as a death.

“This is not the type of incident that is typically the inciting incident of a Department of Ed investigation like this,” Perera said in an interview. “I’m hoping that they handle this a bit differently than their standard protocols would dictate, just because of how incredibly sensitive and tragic this initial incident is.”

Key details surrounding Benedict’s death and identity are still unclear.

Sue Benedict — Benedict’s grandmother whom they called Mom — told The Independent that Benedict “did not see themselves as male or female. Benedict saw themselves right down the middle.” Friends of Benedict during a vigil in Owasso, Okla., where they lived, said Benedict was transgender and primarily went by he/him pronouns at school but also used they/them pronouns.

LGBTQ advocacy groups have described Benedict, who was of Choctaw Nation ancestry, as identifying under the Two-Spirit, transgender and gender non-conforming umbrella.

A police investigation is ongoing, and the results of an autopsy and toxicology report are pending. The fight at school has not been ruled out as a possible cause of death, local authorities have said.

It is also not known how long the OCR investigation into Benedict’s school district, Owasso Public Schools, will last. Certain investigations, particularly ones that involve violent crimes, can take months or even years.

The Department of Education told The Hill it began the investigation on March 1, but did not say how long it may take.

“It is so important that we have a real investigation to determine what happened and ensure that there’s accountability and justice served,” Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Thursday on a call with reporters.

“We need to know what is happening in this school district; we need to know how the administration is handling, broadly, anti-LGBTQ+ harassment,” she said. Robinson referenced a recent report from The Oklahoman in which current and former Owasso students said the Tulsa suburb has a long history of bullying that targets LGBTQ people.

Lance Preston, the founder and executive director of the Rainbow Youth Project, told reporters on Thursday that calls to the group’s crisis hotline have surged since Feb. 16, when Benedict’s death began to receive widespread media attention. Most Oklahoma callers, Preston said, reported instances of bullying at local schools.

Benedict’s death has cast a spotlight on Oklahoma — which leads the nation in anti-LGBTQ legislation filed this year, according to the ACLU — and its treatment of LGBTQ students.

More than 350 LGBTQ and civil rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, in February called for the removal of the state’s top education official, Ryan Walters, for his anti-LGBTQ views and policies and for appointing Chaya Raichik — the conservative activist behind Libs of TikTok, whose posts often target LGBTQ people — to a state library advisory board.

Walters at a January State Board of Education meeting said gender fluidity is “the most radical concept we’ve ever come across in K-12 education” and accused the Biden administration of weaponizing the Education Department to “push gender ideology on kids.”

Responding to the groundswell of attention on Benedict’s death, Walters in a statement accused “the radical left and their accomplices in the media” of using the incident to “push a political agenda and a false narrative.”

“I will continue to fight for parents and will never back down to the woke mob,” he said.

The Human Rights Campaign has called for a separate investigation into Walters and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“He’s more busy covering his tail than doing his job, so we need to make sure that there’s an outside entity ensuring that there is a thorough investigation,” Robinson said Thursday, referring to the OCR investigation. “And if this investigation finds what we have heard to be true — that there is a pattern of systemic harassment in the school — there has to be action taken.”

The Department of Education in that case would need to lay out clear steps for the school district to change its policies and culture, Robinson said, and Owasso Public Schools would be required to enter a compliance agreement to ensure those steps are taken.

The school district may also opt to resolve the investigation itself through a resolution agreement, which is allowed in certain cases, according to OCR’s complaint processing procedures.

Schools found to have violated one of the laws OCR enforces, which includes Title IX, are almost always given a chance to negotiate a settlement. Settlements typically require schools to collect better data on Title IX complaints and offer more resources to students.

“I would argue that those seem insufficient to address the type of harassment that has been documented by the family and friends of Nex Benedict,” said Perera, of the Brookings Institute, “especially in a state where you have the state superintendent vehemently attacking any efforts to make schools more inclusive for LGBTQ youth.”

In rare cases, schools found to have violated the law may lose federal funding. Schools that refuse to comply with agreements struck with OCR may have their cases referred to the Department of Justice.

Advocates said they don’t expect discrimination against LGBTQ people in Oklahoma — and Owasso, specifically — to disappear overnight, and the OCR investigation is only the first step in the right direction.

“Young people that are watching need to be reassured that when something happens that is flat out wrong, that there are people that are willing to stand up for them,” said Robinson, of the Human Rights Campaign.

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