Education , Culture & the Family

Queer activist calls for keeping Oklahoma parents in the dark about child’s mental health

Ray Carter | March 28, 2024

Following the Feb. 8 suicide of Dagny Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso girl who recently identified as nonbinary and went by the name Nex Benedict, one prominent 2STGNC+ activist said state officials should no longer require teachers to notify parents of information related to their child’s mental health.

2STGNC+ is an acronym for “Two Spirit, transgender, gender nonconforming+.”

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, told members of the State Board of Education they should repeal a regulation that requires teachers to disclose to a child’s parents “any information” regarding “material changes reasonably expected to be important to parents regarding their child’s health, social, or psychological development, including Identity information.”

McAfee said that regulation would “out” students to their parents and parents should not be notified without the child’s permission.

The Freedom Oklahoma leader also called for lawmakers to repeal a law that prevents boys from using girls’ bathrooms (and vice versa) in public schools.

However, Benedict’s suicide was not related to either the mental-health notification regulation or the state’s bathroom law, according to investigators and the results of a state autopsy.

While Benedict was involved in a brief fight in the school bathroom at Owasso on Feb. 7, police found that the fight may have lasted only one minute and was not related to Benedict’s identifying as nonbinary. The Owasso Police Department issued a statement on Feb. 21 noting that all students involved in the fight “walked under their own power to the assistant principal’s office and nurse’s office” and 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.”

Benedict committed suicide the next day. A state autopsy found the teenager had taken large amounts of Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) along with Prozac.

Benedict left notes related to her suicide. Tulsa County District Attorney Stephen Kunzweiler said those notes “do not make any reference to the earlier fight or difficulties at school.”

To date, no information related to the investigation suggests Owasso school officials were negligent in any way or ignored bullying.

Benedict Was a Victim of Childhood Sexual Abuse

This week, additional information has become public indicating Benedict was brutally abused by her biological father as a young child, leading to significant mental health problems.

An affidavit issued on July 17, 2019, for the arrest of James Everette Hughes, Benedict’s father, showed that he was accused of sodomizing the girl when she was nine. Hughes accepted a plea deal to sexual assault in the second degree on November 27, 2019. He was sentenced to five years in prison in Arkansas.

Benedict struggled with mental-health issues and had previously been prescribed Seroquel, which is used to treat schizophrenia and episodes of mania or depression in patients with bipolar disorder.

But activists have continued to portray Benedict’s death as a product of school bullying and depression caused by state laws, such as the one that limits school bathroom access based on sex.

Following the release of Benedict’s full autopsy, McAfee issued a statement saying, “There is no report that absolves those in leadership from their failures to keep 2SLGBTQ+ youth safe. Nex Benedict should still be alive, and the least we can do in Nex’s memory is take urgent action to address the continued hostile school environments 2SLGBTQ+ students across Oklahoma are subjected to on a daily basis.”

McAfee said that “the hostile, dangerous environment Nex was subjected to as a trans person enrolled in an Oklahoma public school, is not unique to Owasso.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, issued a statement saying, “Oklahoma’s supposed leaders must still provide answers to the public about the state-sponsored bullying by legislation, the inadequate response to violence in a school bathroom, and all the failures to keep Nex safe that continue to endanger LGBTQ and 2STGNC+ people in Oklahoma.”

Activists held a rally on March 28 and marched to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, where the State Board of Education was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting. Activists called for Walters’ removal from office, citing his vocal support for measures such as restricting school bathroom access based on sex.

McAfee spoke to board members during the meeting and continued to portray Benedict’s suicide as a product of school culture. McAfee did not acknowledge the role prior abuse played in Benedict’s mental health.

“Nex’s autopsy report reads like the physical manifestation of the fear I hear every day from students in schools across Oklahoma, students who are chronically dehydrated because they won’t drink water for risk of facing harassment in a bathroom you force them to use,” McAfee told board members.

McAfee insisted that “hostile school environments” exist across Oklahoma for children who identify as having various sexual or gender identities.

Walters called Benedict’s suicide “an incredible tragedy for the family, the community, and our state.”

“I’m heartbroken for the loss of this family,” Walters said. “I’m heartbroken for any student who is in a situation like that.”

But the state superintendent also noted that activists immediately seized on Benedict’s suicide and used it to advance a political narrative while many facts remained unknown, saying those activists’ claims were “outrageous and unfounded.”

“These radical groups lied, intentionally so, to push a political narrative,” Walters said. “They knew from the beginning they were lying. And they knew even when more information came out and the results came out (from the autopsy) yesterday that they would just continue to lie and target conservatives in this state for what happened. They wanted to use the death of a child to support a political agenda, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting.”

Walters said activists’ tactics will not succeed in changing state policy.

“I will never back down to a woke mob,” Walters said. “I will never lie to our kids or allow a radical agenda to be forced on our kids. No matter how many groups, how many radicals, descend upon the state of Oklahoma, we will continue to support our students, our families, with the best education possible, with the best quality of resources possible.”

While activist groups effectively dismissed the role severe abuse played in Benedict’s mental health, Jeremy Lee Quinn, a reporter who was among the first to publish information on Benedict’s abuse at the hands of her father, said it should not be ignored.

Via a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), Quinn wrote, “Personally, I have a friend who was sexually molested by her father as a child. She has a family now. Owns her own business, and is sober. There is recovery & a life going forward. I hope reporting this hard truth will offer strength and shine a light on the struggle of survivors. Here on the islands, survivors have shared with me this mantra: ‘Silence hides violence.’ Rest in love #NexBenedict, felt by all those touched by your passing – those who knew you as Dagny, and by any other name. May we come together to make sure this never happens. And those seeking hope, have the support they need.”

Walters expressed similar hope that youth in crisis will reach out for help rather than continue down a road that ends in suicide.

“I believe every child, every single one of us, was formed and created in God’s image,” Walters said. “Every human being carries a divine spark given to us by our Creator.”

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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