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District Under Federal Investigation Following Death of Nonbinary Student Nex Benedict

The U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into the Owasso, Okla., district following the death of a 16-year-old nonbinary student the day after a fight in a school restroom last month.

The Feb. 7 death of Nex Benedict sparked protests around the country about the treatment of LGBTQ+ students at school, state laws related to the the rights of transgender students, and restrictions on how educators can discuss issues like race and sexuality.

Benedict told police three students physically attacked them in an Owasso High School girls’ restroom after mocking the way they dressed, according to footage from a body camera an officer wore as he questioned the student in a hospital following the fight. Police have said that preliminary information from a medical examiner showed Benedict”did not die as a result of trauma”, but they have not released autopsy results.

The federal investigation will determine whether the district met its obligations under three federal civil rights laws: Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding; and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, the Education Department’s office for civil rights said in a March 1 letter.

That letter was addressed to Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson, who filed a complaint alleging that Owasso schools failed to respond to harassment on the basis of sex.

“We believe that Nex’s death is the natural consequence of a growing wave of hatred against LGBTQ+ people,” Robinson wrote in a Feb. 21 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. She highlighted states’ legislative efforts “focused on demonizing transgender and gender-expansive youth specifically,” including an Oklahoma law that prohibits transgender students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

Students’ access to educational opportunities may be affected when schools create a hostile environment by failing to adequately address complaints about bullying and harassment on the basis of sex or “a student’s failure to conform to sex stereotypes,” the Education Department has said.

A representative from the U.S. Department of Education a confirmed the investigation Monday, but said the agency would not comment further on a pending matter.

Federal law and LGBTQ+ students

A spokesperson for the Owasso school district confirmed the district had received notice of the investigation March 1.

“The district is committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by [the Human Rights Campaign] is not supported by the facts and is without merit,” he said in a statement.

The fight Benedict was involved in ended in less than two minutes after fellow students and a staff member intervened, the district said in a Feb. 20 statement posted to its website. Students then walked “under their own power” to the school nurse’s office, and staff contacted their parents. An ambulance was not deemed necessary, but parents of one student took them to the hospital for evaluation, the statement said, presumably Benedict.

“We recognize the impact that this event has had on the entire school community and it is our priority to foster an environment where everyone feels heard, supported, and safe,” the statement said. “If there is ever a concern about student safety or well-being, please reach out to a teacher, counselor or principal at your child’s school.”

The federal Education Department regularly opens investigations into complaints under a range of federal civil rights laws, often reaching agreements with districts to remedy problems before those investigations are complete. The investigations carry the implied threat of the loss of federal funding if districts do not agree to correct any detected areas of noncompliance.

“Please note that opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint,” Karen E. Mines, acting OCR regional director wrote in the letter confirming the investigation.

Oklahoma leaders have repeatedly challenged the Biden administration’s interpretation of civil rights laws, including Title IX. In August 2021, Republican attorneys general from 20 states, including Oklahoma, sued the federal Education Department over a legal interpretation that said schools must allow students to use restrooms and pronouns that align with their gender identity. A judge in that case issued a preliminary injunction, temporarily prohibiting its implementation in plaintiff states, including Oklahoma.

In its interpretation of Title IX, the Education Department has cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., which held that a prohibition of sex discrimination in Title VII, the federal employment law, prohibits unequal treatment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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