April 2024 Church & State Magazine - April 2024

Okla. education official should step down, AU and other groups say


Nex Benedict: A victim of Oklahoma’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies

Americans United in late February called on officials in Oklahoma to oust Ryan Walters, the state superintendent for public instruction, in the wake of the death of a 16-year-old nonbinary student.

The student, Nex Benedict, who used they/them pronouns, died one day after they were allegedly assaulted by fellow students in a bathroom at Owasso High School.

School officials failed to summon an ambulance for Benedict, but their legal guardian took them to a hospital, where Benedict was treated and released. The next day, Benedict started having trouble breathing, and they died later that day in the hospital. A medical examiner’s report later concluded that Benedict died by suicide from an overdose of an antihistamine and an anti-depressant medicine.

“We are still learning more about the death of Nex Benedict, but the finding of suicide does not absolve Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters or Chaya Raichik of their culpability,” said Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser. “During his tenure, Walters has fostered an environment that embraces Christian Nationalism and is hostile to 2SLGBTQIA+ people and others. Walters has divided the schoolchildren of Oklahoma according to his personal religious beliefs, favoring some and alienating and persecuting others.

“Walters appointed Raichik, an unqualified internet bully, to ban books and oversee school safety,” Laser continued. “Raichik runs the Libs of TikTok social media accounts that are known for attacking LGBTQ+ people and once smeared the Trevor Project, a LGBTQ+ youth suicide-prevention service, as a ‘grooming organization.’

She concluded, “Walters created the un-American environment that drove this child — a child he’s supposed to protect — to a place of hopelessness and despair. The medical examiner’s finding does nothing to change that hostile environment. Without a change, this will happen again. Walters and Raichik must be removed from office.”

(In the phrase “2SLGBTQ,IA+” 2S stands for “Two-Spirit,” a phrase used in Indigenous communities to identify gender-expansive individuals or those who do not identify with their gender at birth.)

Vigils were held for Benedict, who was of Choctaw ancestry, in Oklahoma and other places around the county.

AU joined an effort by more than 350 organizations demanding that Walters be removed from office. AU urged supporters to sign a petition demanding Walters’ ouster.

“Under the leadership of Superintendent Walters, the Oklahoma Department of Education has fostered a culture that has led to marginalization, harassment, and discrimination against 2SLGBTQ+ individuals in public schools,” the petition observes. “2SLGBTQ+ students face a climate of hate and bigotry, in which their safety and well-being are at risk. The horrific death of Nex Benedict, and the callous behavior of Oklahoma Department of Education leadership in the wake of their death, demonstrates a very real and present danger to other vulnerable children in the state.

“We are united in our demand for justice, equality, and inclusion within Oklahoma schools. We must ensure that 2SLGBTQ+ students and staff in Oklahoma schools are provided with the necessary protections and support to thrive in their educational environments. We call upon the Oklahoma State Legislature to take action now.”

To sign the petition, go to www.au.org/get-involved and scroll down to the blue box headlined, “Petition: Oust Superintendent Ryan Walters.”

The U.S. Department of Education also heeded the call of AU and allies to conduct an inquiry into the Owasso school district which “failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment.”

The investigation, the department said, will attempt to determine whether the district violated federal laws that outlaw sex-based discrimination.

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