After Nex Benedict’s death, Oklahoma schools chief defends strict gender policies


In his time as state superintendent of Oklahoma public schools, Ryan Walters, a former high school history teacher, has transformed himself into one of the most strident culture warriors in a state known for its conservative politics.

Following the death earlier this month of a 16-year-old non-binary student, a day after an altercation in a high school girls’ bathroom, gay and transgender advocates accused Walters of having fostered an atmosphere of dangerous intolerance within public schools.

In her first interview about the death of student Nex Benedict, Walters told The New York Times that the death was a tragedy, but that it did not change her opinion about how gender issues should be handled in schools.

“There are no multiple genres. There are two. This is how God created us,” Walters said, stating that he did not believe non-binary or transgender people existed. He said Oklahoma schools would not allow students to use preferred names or pronouns that differ from their birth sex.

“People are always treated with dignity and respect, because they are made in the image of God,” Mr. Walters said. “But that doesn’t change the truth.”

Nex BenedictoCredit…Sue Benedict/Sue Benedict, via Associated Press

Walters, who is ultimately in charge of Oklahoma public schools and has been discussed as a possible candidate for higher office, has been one of the loudest voices in the state seeking to prevent the discussion and promotion of LGBTQ issues. in the schools. His fellow Republicans in the Legislature have backed a wave of new laws and proposals targeting gay and transgender people.

In interviews, transgender students said their classmates have seen the rhetoric of officials like Mr. Walters as permission to harass and intimidate them at school.

And at an Oklahoma board of education meeting this week, Sean Cummings, vice mayor of a city adjacent to Oklahoma City known as The Village, blamed the board’s anti-gay and anti-transgender policies for the harassment of Nex. “You provoked it,” he said, addressing Mr. Walters directly.

Questions remained about the bullying that family members said Nex had experienced at Owasso High School before the bathroom altercation on Feb. 7, and what connection it might have had to his death. Police said Wednesday that Nex had not died from trauma, a finding Walters reiterated.

“We were told the death was not directly related to the fight at the school,” he said, warning that the investigation was ongoing.

On Friday night, the Owasso Police Department released several videos showing Nex walking under his own power after the altercation and, separately, speaking at the hospital with a police officer.

Nex told the officer that they poured water on several girls who were making fun of them inside the girls’ bathroom, and then three girls threw them to the ground and “started hitting them.”

“I passed out,” Nex told the officer.

Investigators had yet to determine what caused the student’s death, said Nick Boatman, spokesman for the Owasso Police Department.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy organization GLAAD, called the death “a tragic, senseless and shocking attack that should never be forgotten” in an Instagram post this week.

Walters said the tragedy had been compounded by outside advocates seeking to make a political point.

“I think it’s terrible that we’ve had some radical leftists who decided to run with a political agenda and try to spin a narrative that wasn’t true,” he said. “They have suffered a tragedy and some people have tried to exploit it for political gain.”

Officers have conducted interviews with students and staff at Owasso High School. The school district has said the altercation lasted less than two minutes and that the students involved were able to walk to the nurse’s office afterward.

No report was made to police until a family member took Nex to a hospital, police said. That day they returned home. The next day, local doctors took Nex to the hospital and pronounced him dead. The state medical examiner’s office declined to comment on the autopsy or any toxicology results, but said its final report would eventually be made public.

Much of the criticism Walters has received has focused on his recent appointment of Chaya Raichik to a state committee. Ms. Raichik, who has posted anti-gay and anti-transgender content on her X her account, Libs of TikTok, is part of a committee that considers the appropriateness of school library books. “Ryan Walters has created a devastatingly hostile environment for trans, two-Spirit and gender nonconforming students,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, which advocates for transgender and gay rights. Since Nex’s death, they said, “I’ve seen more times than I can count people share an image Ryan Walters posted during his campaign of people in a bathroom with language that specifically villainizes trans youth.”

Walters, 38, has been an unapologetic lightning rod in Oklahoma, launching direct verbal attacks against school districts, teachers unions and, occasionally, individual teachers whom he has accused of promoting “pornography” or “radical gender theory.” ” in public schools. He was appointed to the Cabinet position of secretary of education by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2020 and then won election as state superintendent in 2022.

He has pressured educators in several districts to resign, including a teacher who organized a protest over a ban on certain books and an elementary school principal who performed dressed as a woman outside of school.

Such an aggressively partisan approach surprised some of Walters’ former students, many of whom admired him as an approachable teacher who valued debate. “Walters would try his best to be apolitical,” said Shane Hood, who took at least three history classes with Walters at McAlester High School. As a professor, Hood said, he gave little indication of his political views, other than showing large cutouts of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan.

“He was probably the favorite of the whole school,” Hood, 22, said, adding that Walters’ current political personality didn’t fit the teacher he knew.

Walters’ public fights came as conservative states across the country passed laws restricting the rights of transgender people. In Oklahoma, lawmakers banned gender transition care for minors and explicitly banned the use of gender-neutral markers on birth certificates.

The Oklahoma Legislature is currently considering a bill to prohibit residents from changing their sex designation on birth certificates, and another to require public schools to adopt the policy that gender is an “immutable biological trait” and prohibit the use of preferred alternative names or pronouns. Another proposal, known as the Patriotism, Not Pride Act, would prevent state agencies from displaying flags or symbols in support of gay and transgender people.

“It’s just incredibly harmful,” said Whitney Cipolla, a board member of Oklahomans for Equality, which advocates for gay and transgender rights. “I know queer educators who are afraid to teach.”

In interviews, transgender and nonbinary teens in Oklahoma said the political climate had made things more difficult for them.

“There are a lot of feelings of helplessness,” said Hali, 18, a transgender girl and high school senior in the town of Claremore, who asked that her last name not be used for fear she could be targeted by anti-activists. transgender. . “You always have that little fear that they could attack you, that you could be one of the victims.”

Hali said he met Nex after meeting them as part of a program in Tulsa that offers counseling and other assistance to young people, including those who are gay or transgender. Nex was “very kind, outgoing and a very sweet person,” Hali said, but added that he didn’t know much about the altercation that preceded Nex’s death.

When asked how Oklahoma schools should treat students who identify as transgender, Mr. Walters said schools would “continue to treat every student with dignity and respect” but would not “enter into transgender ideology by accepting all those premises” and forcing teachers to adopt them.

Walters, who described himself as a history lover and reader, said he saw the nation at something of a crossroads.

“I really see that there is a civil war going on, where the left is really fighting for the soul of our country,” he said. “They are undermining the very principles that made this country great, our Judeo-Christian values ​​and our traditions in this country.”

Returning to those values ​​and traditions, he added, “that’s what will bring us together.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.

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