Children Have a Right to Go to School

Nex Benedict's death is a civil rights issue. We have the responsibility, and the power, to make sure this never happens again.

Children Have a Right to Go to School
Nex Benedict.

Nex Benedict was never going to get justice. We knew that from the beginning. By now, most trans people and allies are familiar with the story: Nex, a Native trans student at Owasso High School, was assaulted by his bullies in a high school bathroom. They beat his head against the floor until he lost consciousness. The staff of Owasso refused to call an ambulance for him. After school, he was taken to the hospital by his mother, where he was examined for a potential concussion. Twenty-four hours later, he began having what looked like a seizure — seizure being a major symptom of traumatic brain injury — and dropped dead in his own living room. 

This is a simple story. A child was bullied; a child was beaten; a child was killed. Then the adults stepped in. First, the Owasso police department claimed that the death did not result from head trauma; then, they said they hadn’t ruled head trauma out as the cause of death. The Oklahoma medical examiner ruled the death a “suicide,” based on the fact that Nex had ingested two very common drugs — Prozac and Benadryl — that do not cause overdose at anything other than massive levels. The medical examiner's statement did not say how much of either drug was in his system, nor did it mention his many injuries, which his parents leaked to the press from their own copy of the autopsy report. Now, with the cause of death sufficiently obscured, the Owasso police department has ruled (as it was always going to rule) that no charges will be filed against the girls who attacked Nex. 

Some people are calling for blood, and I do not blame them. Yet I don’t really want those girls put on trial or locked up; they’re children, too. I also don’t want our enemies to be able to frame this as a bunch of scary trans and queer people crusading to end the lives of innocent young cis girls. I’m not even sure the reports of suicide are incorrect: It’s very common for badly bullied teens to become suicidal, especially trans teenagers. If that were the case, the only result of a criminal trial would be a “not guilty” verdict for the girls, which the world would no doubt receive as absolution, and an excuse to forget that — directly or indirectly — transphobia killed this child. 

No: What I want is justice. I want actual justice — for Nex, for kids like Nex, for all the trans and queer students that came before Nex and will come after him. I want it understood that trans and queer students are not safe in school, and that adults are responsible. Then, I want that to change.

In her book Sexual Justice, the feminist legal scholar Alexandra Brodsky makes a convincing argument for not treating rape as a criminal offense. Criminal rape trials are notoriously re-traumatizing for victims, who are scrutinized far more harshly than their attackers. The evidentiary standard is purposefully very high — as it is for any criminal offense, though rape convictions are less common than convictions for any type of non-sexual assault — and rape, which often takes place in a private setting, is hard to prosecute. Prison abolitionists and critics of the carceral system are loath to lock anyone up, no matter how horrible they are. Those who do want to see rapists locked up will probably not get what they want — sentencing for rape is notoriously lax, even when the evidence is overwhelming. 

None of this means that rapists shouldn’t face consequences. It means that the best way to ensure real consequences for rape is to move the process out of criminal courts. One way we do this is by seeing the individual violence of rape as an extension of a larger system of discrimination — a civil rights issue. 

One of Brodsky’s areas of expertise is campus sexual assault. In that context, as in many others, the victims of rape are overwhelmingly young women, and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly young men. Because schools were refusing to provide accommodations for the victims — for example, allowing them to take time off for mental health reasons, or helping them transfer out of classes they shared with their rapists — those young women were getting worse grades, transferring, or dropping out. 

Thus, campus sexual assault was a civil rights violation: It was interfering with women’s right to receive a full and equal education. Less education means fewer opportunities and worse life outcomes; it means less money, less access, less power. Men were essentially using rape to drive women out of higher education and thereby preserve men’s power over women in society at large — and, by refusing to get involved to protect survivors, colleges were systematically discriminating against female students in favor of male ones. 

Here’s the important part: As a civil rights issue, the federal government had not only the right, but the responsibility to intervene. Title IX states that schools which receive federal funding may not discriminate “on the basis of sex,” and schools that do discriminate can have their federal funding pulled. 

Thus, it is in a school’s best interest to take an active stance in preventing sexual violence and in ensuring that the negative consequences of a sexual assault do not rest with the victim. In other words, if you get raped, your rapist should be the one to drop out — and if your school covers for him, or nurtures rape culture on campus, or in any way fails to provide you with the full and equal education to which you are entitled, it might not get to be a school any more. 

This isn’t a perfect solution — Brodsky’s organization, Know Your IX, was able to shape campus sexual assault policy under Obama, but Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, rolled back a lot of the progress they’d made. However, it is a solution, and it’s something that you, as a trans person, should know. Here’s why: 

Title IX covers discrimination against trans and queer people, too. That’s been the case ever since the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision in June of 2020. Bostock found that discrimination against trans or queer people is invariably “discrimination on the basis of sex,” because it rests on the fact that we do not conform to the sex that was assigned to us at birth. Furthermore: Title IX covers, not just colleges, but any school that receives federal funding. It covers public high schools. It covers Owasso, where Nex Benedict was beaten unconscious in a bathroom. It probably covers your school, or your child’s school, too. 

We have allowed the trans “debate” to center, to a truly monstrous extent, on targeting children  -- and on targeting them, specifically, in schools. We don’t want trans girls on sports teams. We don’t want trans kids in bathrooms. We want teachers to out queer students to their parents. But the whole reason we have a public education system, in this country, is that every child is entitled to an education. Children have a right to go to school. They have a right to go to school without being harassed. They have a right to go to school without being beaten. They have a right to go to school without being killed. 

As I’ve mentioned a few times, when writing about Nex Benedict, I was a trans kid who was driven out of school by bullying. I missed my last two and a half years of high school because my teachers didn’t believe it was physically safe for me to attend. I probably missed more than that, in the grand scheme of things: Beginning in sixth grade, every single day was a gauntlet of physical and sexual violence. I began to develop stress-related health problems. I stayed home sick whenever possible. I stared at the walls instead of the teachers. I had been a star student all throughout elementary school. I was in a gifted program. I was, at one point, part of a study on “child prodigies.” By the time I was removed from public high school, I was flunking most of my classes.

I did not get an education equal to that of my cis peers, and it still dogs me. I’m doing okay, but I would be doing better if I had gotten to be a kid in the company of other kids, or if I had been able to concentrate on learning rather than keeping myself alive. I didn’t get that, because I’m queer. Kids are still not getting that, and it has to change. 

We know that it wasn’t just Nex, that the other queer and trans students at Owasso were and are being bullied. There was another trans child with Nex in the bathroom; they were attacked, too, and it is only a matter of luck that they were not killed. Jo Yurcaba’s excellent article on Owasso High’s student protests quotes another nonbinary student, “Kane,” who has been intermittently unable to attend school: “Kane said he has gone back and forth between in-person school and online classes since eighth grade in part due to bullying over his sexuality more than his gender identity. When he was a sophomore, a student called him and his partner ‘f———,’ and he said students casually use the N-word often with no repercussions.” 

The institutional rot at Owasso High School started long before the administration refused to call an ambulance for Nex Benedict. A death like this was bound  to happen eventually — if not to Nex, than to another queer or trans student, and if not at Owasso, then at one of the many, many schools with the same problem. 

It’s been a long time since I was a high school student, but I’m a parent now, and as a parent, as someone who watches my kid board a bus every morning and go to a building full of near-strangers on the promise that she'll be safe there, this is a horror beyond telling. Adults who were paid to teach our children failed them. An environment that we were promised was safe turned out to be lethal. Sending your children to school is mandatory — if you don’t send them, or find some way to home school them (which is frankly impossible for many working-class parents) the state can take your kid away. Parents of queer and trans children are legally forced to surrender them into environments where they can be sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, driven to suicide, or just plain murdered. 

There have got to be consequences for that. We have a Democratic President, currently running for re-election; if I were in that position, promising to aggressively investigate and penalize schools for Title IX violations against trans students might seem like a really good idea right now. It would certainly be a better way to court trans voters than numbly repeating, once every couple years, that he “has our back.” But what do I know?

Nex Benedict is dead. He will never be alive again, no matter what happens; there is nothing you or I or anyone can do to bring him back. We lost everything he could have been and everything he could have done. I feel that loss, deeply, though I cannot imagine how deep it must be for his parents and the people who loved him.

To me, justice doesn't mean blood, and it doesn't mean vengeance. It means making sure that Nex Benedict's life matters; that we remember him, and honor him, by making sure that this never happens again.  I want his death to be the line in the sand, the point where we – as parents, as queer people, as trans people, as human beings with a basic fucking conscience as regards the cold-blooded murder of small children – stand up and say no more to the demonization and destruction of trans kids. I want Nex to change the world, still. I want him to be the reason that all children like him are safe.

I do not normally publish newsletters every day, but the circumstance seemed urgent enough to hit "publish" right away. I'll warn you now that I may take the next week off to compensate – I've got other deadlines to hit – but we'll be back to a once a week schedule after that.

ETA: As per this EdWeek article, Nex Benedict's school district is currently under investigation for Title IX violations, among other things. The article also mentions that districts under investigation can essentially plea-bargain out by "reaching agreements with districts to remedy problems before those investigations are complete." I'm just one person, but in my opinion, we need to keep as much national attention as possible on this district and this investigation – the obfuscatory efforts by those in power are obvious and clearly intended to shield responsible parties from consequences, and I don't want anyone weaseling out of this – and we also need to keep aggressively investigating and penalizing schools where students are not safe to learn.

Thank you for reading this. Thank you for caring.