Oklahoma education superintendent under fire for anti-LGBTQ rhetoric after Nex Benedict's death

The letter accuses Ryan Walters of “fostering a culture of violence and hate."

February 28, 2024, 6:14 PM

Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters is standing by policies affecting the transgender community in state schools following the death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict, which has resulted in increasing calls for his removal from office.

"To make sure that all individuals are safe in a school, we want every student to be protected, we want every student to be successful," Walters told ABC News in an interview Tuesday. "That also means we're not going to lie to students. And we're not going to push a gender ideology."

However, an open letter is calling for Walters' immediate removal from office for, the letter claims, "fostering a culture of violence and hate against the 2SLGBTQI+ community in Oklahoma schools." The letter is signed by about 350 local, state, and national organizations.

The letter – which was created and circulated Wednesday by the advocacy groups Freedom Oklahoma, GLAAD, Human Rights Campaign, and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) – also demands an investigation into the state Department of Education "to determine what actions and policies have led to a culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked."

In a statement to ABC News, Walters called the letter a "standard tactic of the radical left, and they will stop at nothing to destroy the country and our state."

Walters further accused critics of engaging in a "desperate political game" that seeks to "exploit the death of a young Oklahoman. I will never stop fighting, I will not play woke gender games, and I will not back down to a woke mob."

PHOTO: Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters spoke with ABC News about Nex Benedict's death and issues of anti-LGBTQ bullying in Oklahoma schools.
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters spoke with ABC News about Nex Benedict's death and issues of anti-LGBTQ bullying in Oklahoma schools.
ABC News

Nex, a member of the LGBTQ community in Owasso, Oklahoma, died Feb. 8, one day after a physical fight between Nex and several other students.

Nex's mother told the U.K. newspaper The Independent that Nex had been bullied because of their gender identity following the implementation of anti-LGBTQ policies at the state level in recent years.

Authorities are awaiting the full results of the autopsy and toxicology reports for more insight into the circumstances surrounding the teen's death. The state medical examiner's office will determine the final cause and manner of death.

PHOTO: In this image provided Malia Pila, Nex Benedict poses outside the family's home in Owasso, Okla., in December 2023.
In this image provided Malia Pila, Nex Benedict poses outside the family's home in Owasso, Okla., in December 2023.
Sue Benedict via AP

Body camera footage from the Owasso Police Department captured Nex on a gurney after the fight, telling a school resource officer that they had poured water on three students because they were making fun of the way Nex and their friends dressed and laughed.

Nex didn't know the students' names but told the officer that the group had been "antagonizing" Nex in the days leading up to the incident. Nex's family has since called for action and answers concerning the alleged bullying they say Nex faced in school.

"The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy," the family said via their attorney in a statement to ABC News.

Superintendent Walters called Nex's death a tragedy, and told ABC News he has been "praying and keeping the family in our thoughts and prayers – also the community and the school." However, following Nex's death, Walters has come under fire for his views on gender, and for the impact of his statements.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 1, 2022 file photo, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks at a rally in Oklahoma City.
In this Nov. 1, 2022 file photo, Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks at a rally in Oklahoma City.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

"In the weeks following Nex's death, numerous youths have come forward to detail the rampant harassment of Oklahoma's 2SLGBTQI+ students by peers, teachers, and administrators," the open letter from activists reads, in part.

"We are outraged that a climate of hate and bigotry has been not only allowed to thrive, but encouraged by the person who is responsible for education in the state of Oklahoma. State officials must be held accountable for bringing the politics of hate into Oklahoma's schools and making our most vulnerable youth pay the price."

Walters' views on gender

Walters said he believes there are only two genders and that those are based on the sex someone is "assigned at birth."

ABC News asked Walters about how intersex populations fit into his view of the gender binary. Intersex people, whom the United Nations estimates make up 1.7% of the world population , are born with biological sex characteristics that do not fit in the typical gender binary of male or female. This includes people with ambiguous or abnormal reproductive organs or abnormal sex chromosomes.

"When you are born, you have a gender: you either have an XX chromosome or an XY chromosome," Walters said. "We've seen radical leftists who've tried to create this idea of gender fluidity, which frankly, it confuses students, and causes all kinds of chaos in the classroom and chaos with families."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, defines gender as "the cultural roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes expected of people based on their sex."

The CDC defines sex as an individual's "biological status as male, female, or something else. Sex is assigned at birth and associated with physical attributes, such as anatomy and chromosomes."

Walters has said that he wants the "focus to be on the basics and education."

When asked about concerns that some students can't focus on school because of rhetoric that invalidates their identity, Walters said that he wants students to be successful and protected, but that he would not "lie" to them.

"What we see here is an effort from the left to lie about the death of this child to push an agenda and to try to push us off of our positions and our stances," Walters told ABC News. "We're not going to back down to that. we're going to continue to move the state forward and education."

LGBTQ policies in Oklahoma

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed several bills into law that critics claim unfairly target the LGBTQ community. These include a bill that requires public school students to use only the bathroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificate; a ban on the use of nonbinary gender markers on IDs; restrictions on gender-affirming care for trans youth; and bans on transgender girls participating in girls' sports, citing concerns about fairness.

Additionally, under Walters' administration, Oklahoma schools have moved to restrict access to certain books deemed inappropriate for students – including acclaimed novels "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, and "The Glass Castle," by Jeannette Walls – over claims they are "pornography" because they feature sexual content.

Walters also proposed rules banning diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in state schools, as well as restricting the behavior of teachers outside of the classroom after he called for the ouster of an elementary school principal who had performed as a drag queen during his personal time, according to reports from the newspaper The Oklahoman. The principal later resigned and Education Department spokesman Dan Isett defended the calls to the paper: “Western Heights should never have brought a drag queen into a school."

Walters also backed a rule to prevent students from changing their gender markers on school files without authorization from the Board of Education, even with parent or guardian permission, The Oklahoman also reported.

He also appointed Chaya Raichik, the founder of the anti-LGBTQ social media account Libs of TikTok, to a library media advisory panel at the state Department of Education.

Some parents, students and local advocates have expressed concerns in interviews with ABC News about the impact of ongoing anti-LGBTQ sentiment and policies will have on an already marginalized group of students.

"It's scary for me to think that I could send my son to a public school where he might even get ridiculed because he has two moms," said Cassidy Brown, an Owasso resident who organized a rally in support of students protesting anti-LGBTQ bullying. "That's what I'm trying to do now ... trying to protect these kids so they have somebody that they can look up to."

LGBTQ youth consistently report higher rates of bullying, threats, injuries from a weapon, and missed school because of safety concerns, according to the CDC. "When schools implement LGBTQ+ supportive policies and practices, all students experience better health outcomes," the CDC states, including less emotional stress, less violence and harassment, and fewer suicidal behaviors.

Federal officials have also warned in recent years that anti-LGBTQ threats and attacks have been intensifying amid record-breaking anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.

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