Activists tout Owasso student’s death even as story unravels

Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | March 18, 2024

Activists tout Owasso student’s death even as story unravels

Ray Carter

News that a 16-year-old Owasso student died on Feb. 8 quickly resulted in a narrative spread by activists throughout various media outlets: The teenager died as a result of a bathroom assault that was prompted by her self-identification as “nonbinary” amid a culture of violence created by Oklahoma’s “anti-LGBT” laws.

But details from the resulting police investigation and medical examiner’s autopsy have demonstrated nearly every detail of that story was false.

Just two parts of the story were accurate. The girl, born Dagny Ellis Benedict but more recently calling herself Nex Benedict, had recently identified as nonbinary and had been in a fight at school.

All other parts of the narrative have fallen apart as information has become public.

The fight at school was not the result of any state law or politician’s rhetoric. Benedict had been the instigator of the fight, not a hapless victim. And the teen’s death was the result of suicide, not injuries from the bathroom fight.

But that hasn’t caused activists to change their rhetoric even as the story it is based on unravels.

After the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner declared that Benedict’s death was the result of suicide, not trauma from a fight, activists continued to blame policymakers and Oklahoma voters.

“Nex’s death further proves that—far from being a threat to anyone—Two Spirit, transgender, and gender nonconforming+ (2STGNC+) students are the ones who are threatened; they are under attack in Oklahoma schools, and they are under a coordinated attack by extremist politicians who care more about their political aspirations and media appearances than about the impact of their policies and rhetoric on 2SLGBTQ+ lives,” Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said in a statement issued after the autopsy was released.

McAfee went on to claim that state and local officials’ “policies and rhetoric” have “created a regularly hostile environment for a kid just trying to live as his authentic self.”

Similarly, Oklahoma House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson released a statement declaring that Benedict’s death “is a direct result of a society and government that consistently pushes back and restricts their identity and those of other LGBTQ+ individuals.”

President Joe Biden proclaimed that “no one should face the bullying that Nex did,” although no sustained bullying has been substantiated nor is it clear that Benedict’s suicide was linked to perceived bullying.

Benedict’s death occurred Feb. 8, one day after she was involved in a fight in a school bathroom in the Owasso district.

By late February, activist groups were using her death to attack various Oklahoma laws and policies.

On Feb. 28, a wide range of LGBT activist groups and similar organizations issued an open letter to Oklahoma state lawmakers declaring Benedict was “brutally assaulted in the bathroom at Owasso High School and died the next day,” and linking the event to “a record number of anti-2SLGBTQI+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) bills and policies which disproportionately target and impact transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive youth.”

In addition to Oklahoma’s law restricting school-bathroom access to members of one sex—meaning boys may not use girls’ bathrooms and vice versa—activists have also decried as “anti-LGBT” a law that  prevents children younger than 18 from being subjected to sex-change surgeries or given puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones, and a law that prevents boys from competing in girls’ athletic events.

Eight Oklahoma state lawmakers urged “LGBTQ youth” to reach out to the Trevor Project, a group accused of creating a “pedophile’s paradise.”

The groups signing the open letter singled out State Superintendent Ryan Walters, saying Walters “is responsible for fostering a culture of violence and hate against the 2SLGBTQI+ community in Oklahoma schools” because he supports regulations that require schools to identify students by their sex in school records and because Walters called for firing a principal in the Western Heights school district who moonlighted as a drag queen and was previously accused of possession of child pornography.

An article in The New York Times similarly linked Benedict’s death with the Oklahoma law that limits access to public-school bathrooms based on sex.

However, the subsequent release of police video of a post-fight interview with Benedict revealed that the youth, a biological female, was using the women’s bathroom at the time of the fight and that the event was not caused by other students questioning the teenager’s right to be present.

From the beginning, law enforcement officials have pushed back on the narrative that Benedict’s death was caused by injuries sustained in the bathroom fight.

The Owasso Police Department issued a statement on Feb. 21 noting that the Feb. 7 school fight was broken up by other students and a school employee, that all students involved in the fight “walked under their own power to the assistant principal’s office and nurse’s office,” that each student was “given a health assessment by a registered nurse at the school and it was determined that ambulance service was not required,” and that the investigation showed that Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma” the following day.

The police interview recorded the day of the fight showed that Benedict admitted instigating the fight because she believed three girls were mocking the way Benedict laughed and dressed. Benedict also confessed to throwing one girl into a paper-towel dispenser.

Contrary to claims that the event was tied to ongoing bullying, Benedict told the officer she had never seen the other three students before, noting they were freshmen while she was a sophomore.

The officer offered the teen’s grandmother and guardian, Sue Benedict, the opportunity to file a police report against the other three girls, but warned they could do the same thing since Benedict was the first to engage in assault.

The autopsy released by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner declared that Dagny Ellis Benedict, age 16, died as the result of suicide. She had taken diphenhydramine and fluoxetine, the active ingredients in antihistamines and antidepressants.

Fluoxetine is often used to treat major depressive disorder and may be used in combination with another drug to treat manic depression caused by bipolar disorder. The side effects of fluoxetine can include thoughts about suicide, impaired judgement, and aggression.

When police released the 911 call placed the day of Benedict’s death, it revealed she had previously taken Seroquel, which is used to treat schizophrenia and episodes of mania or depression in patients with bipolar disorder.

Cause or effect?

While activists have suggested Benedict’s death was the result of anti-LGBT bullying, supporters of Oklahoma’s laws note that research indicates many youths who identify as nonbinary or transgender often have existing mental-health challenges that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.

Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey analyzed survey data collected between Dec. 1, 2017, and Oct. 22, 2021, from 1,655 parents of youth and young adult children who identified as the opposite sex or nonbinary.

“One statistically robust finding was both disturbing and seemingly important,” Bailey wrote. “Youths with a history of mental health issues were especially likely to have taken steps to socially and medically transition. This relationship held even after statistically adjusting for likely confounders (e.g., age). The finding is concerning because youth with mental health issues may be especially likely to lack judgment necessary to make these important, and in the case of medical transition permanent, decisions.”

On average, the youths were reported to be 14.8 years old when they became gender dysphoric.

Asked whether the gender dysphoric youth have a history of “mental health issues,” 57 percent of parents responded affirmatively, and 42.5 percent of children covered through the survey had also received “a formal psychological diagnosis.” The survey also found that 72.6 percent of children in the sample group had experienced recent stressful life events, including issues such as severe physical or sexual abuse.

Some lawmakers backpedal, direct students to group accused of creating a ‘pedophile’s paradise’

For the most part, Oklahoma policymakers have ignored or outright rejected activist pressure to change Oklahoma laws on bathroom access or the provision of sex-change surgeries to children.

But a small handful of lawmakers recently appeared to backpedal.

Eight House Republicans issued a joint statement declaring Benedict’s death to be “a harsh reminder of the power that words have.” The eight state lawmakers urged “LGBTQ youth” to reach out to the Trevor Project.

The Trevor Project states that its “mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ young people.” But the group has drawn scrutiny for a chat service, “TrevorSpace,” that independent investigations have concluded exposes vulnerable children to pedophiles.

The Trevor Project’s Coming Out Handbook suggests to youth that they may need to leave their home after coming out and directs them to reach out to others on TrevorSpace, which is a service for young people ages 13 to 24.

Independent reviews have raised serious concerns about TrevorSpace.

“In some cases, adults in the chatroom have discussed sexual content with minors and encouraged them to withhold information about their gender transition from their parents,” National Review reported.

National Review’s review found that discussions on the site go far beyond questions about sexual identity.

“In some cases, users under 18 spoke with adult users about sexual preferences, including BDSM and polyamory,” National Review reported. “In chats reviewed by NR, minors and adults discussed sexual fetishes, including ‘gokkun’—the act of drinking multiple male ejaculations from a container, ‘bukkake’—the fetish of being covered with ejaculate, ‘scat play’—deriving sexual gratification from fantasies involving feces, and ‘forniphilia’—a form of bondage in which a person’s body is incorporated into furniture for sexual acts.”

Gays Against Groomers, an organization that self-describes as a collection of “gay people who oppose the recent trend of indoctrinating, sexualizing, and medicalizing children under the guise of ‘LGBTQIA+,’” labeled TrevorSpace “a pedophile’s paradise.”

“TrevorSpace markets itself as a safe space for LGBTQ+ young people to talk about their experiences with identity and peer/familial rejection, which sounds like a great idea,” Gays Against Groomers reported. “But browsing the website for merely a few minutes makes it abundantly clear what it actually is: an online dating service for children and people aged 13-24. No website or chat room of this nature should cater to minors, especially one that encourages them to talk to adults. Adults in their 20s regularly talk to teenagers about sexuality and gender transition on Trevorspace.”

In its review, officials with Gays Against Groomers reported that many of the children in TrevorSpace self-reported as “autistic and most of them express that they are same-sex attracted.”

“The kids who use this predatory dating service have threads and forums about how the website has ‘too many groomers and pedophiles,’ yet the adults that they trust in their lives are telling them that it is a good source for social support,” the Gays Against Groomers report stated.

Notably, House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson did not direct youth to the Trevor Project when she issued a similar statement, choosing to instead urge those experiencing suicidal thoughts to text a crisis hotline.

Recent events bolster case for Oklahoma’s laws

Activists’ efforts to roll back Oklahoma laws regarding transgender issues come amid growing concern about the ethics of those who have promoted sex-change surgeries and cross-sex hormones to children experiencing gender dysphoria.

The recent release of documents and recordings from members of the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) showed that many practitioners who have promoted sex-change surgeries, puberty blockers, and cross-sex hormones have admitted that their child patients did not understand the consequences involved and were incapable of providing informed consent, and that there is little scientific evidence for the validity of the treatments.

“The WPATH Files show that what is called ‘gender medicine’ is neither science nor medicine,” said Michael Shellenberger, president and founder of Environmental Progress. “The experiments are not randomized, double-blind, or controlled. It’s not medicine since the first rule is to do no harm. And that requires informed consent.”

And, far from being an outlier, Oklahoma’s ban on sex-change surgeries or administering puberty blockers to children is increasingly mainstream.

England’s National Health Service recently announced it was banning the use of puberty blockers for the treatment of gender dysphoria in children after concluding that there is not enough evidence to support its safety or clinical effectiveness.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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