Saturday, July 20

After Nex Benedict’s Death, Oklahoma Schools Chief Defends Strict Gender Policies

In his three years as state superintendent for Oklahoma’s public schools, Ryan Walters, a former high school history teacher, has transformed himself into one of the most strident culture warriors in a state known for sharp-edged conservative politics.

Following the death earlier this month of a 16-year-old nonbinary student a day after an altercation in a high school girls’ bathroom, gay and transgender advocates accused Mr. Walters of having fomented an atmosphere of dangerous intolerance within public schools.

In his first interview reacting to the death of the student, Nex Benedict, Mr. Walters told The New York Times that the death was a tragedy, but that it did not change his views on how questions of gender should be handled in schools.

“There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us,” Mr. Walters said, saying he did not believe that nonbinary or transgender people exist. He said that Oklahoma schools would not allow students to use preferred names or pronouns that differ from their birth sex.

“You always treat individuals with dignity or respect, because they’re made in God’s image,” Mr. Walters said. “But that doesn’t change truth.”

Nex BenedictCredit…Sue Benedict/Sue Benedict, via Associated Press

Mr. Walters, who is ultimately in charge of Oklahoma public schools and has been discussed as a possible candidate for higher office, has been one of the loudest voices in the state seeking to prevent discussion and promotion of L.G.B.T.Q. issues in schools. His fellow Republicans in the Legislature have backed a wave of new and proposed laws aimed at gay and transgender people.

In interviews, transgender students said that the rhetoric from officials like Mr. Walters has been seen by their classmates as permission to harass and bully them at school.

And at an Oklahoma board of education meeting this week, Sean Cummings, the vice mayor of a town adjacent to Oklahoma City known as The Village, blamed the board’s anti-gay and anti-transgender policies for the bullying of Nex. “You brought it on,” he said, addressing Mr. Walters directly.

Questions remained about the bullying that family members said Nex had experienced at Owasso High School before the bathroom altercation on Feb. 7, and what connection it might have had to their death. The police on Wednesday said that Nex had not died from trauma, a finding that Mr. Walters reiterated.

“We’ve been told death wasn’t directly related to the fight at school,” he said, cautioning that the investigation was ongoing.

Nick Boatman, a spokesman with the Owasso Police Department, said that investigators were reviewing video from the high school and that they planned to release it “at some point.” Investigators, he said, had yet to determine what caused the student’s death.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of the advocacy organization GLAAD, called the death “a tragic, senseless and shocking attack that should never be forgotten” in an Instagram post this week.

Mr. Walters said the tragedy had been compounded by outside advocates seeking to make a political point.

“I think it’s terrible that we’ve had some radical leftists who decided to run with a political agenda and try to weave a narrative that hasn’t been true,” he said. “You’ve taken a tragedy, and you’ve had some folks try to exploit it for political gain.”

Officers have conducted interviews with students and staff at Owasso High School. The school district has said that the altercation lasted less than two minutes and that the students involved were able to walk to a nurse’s office afterward.

No report to the police was made until after Nex was taken to a hospital by a family member, the police have said. They went home that day. The following day, Nex was rushed back to the hospital by local medics and was pronounced dead. The state medical examiner’s office declined to comment on the autopsy or any toxicology results but said its final report would eventually be made public.

Much of the criticism Mr. Walters has received has focused on his recent appointment of Chaya Raichik to a state committee. Ms. Raichik, who has posted anti-gay and anti-transgender content on her X account, Libs of TikTok, is part of a committee that considers appropriateness of school library books.“Ryan Walters has created a devastatingly hostile environment for trans, two-spirit and gender-nonconforming students,” said Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, which advocates for transgender and gay rights. Since Nex’s death, they said, “I’ve seen more times than I can count folks share an image that Ryan Walters put out during his campaign of folks in a bathroom with language villainizing trans youth specifically.”

But for years, Mr. Walters, 38, has been an unapologetic lightning rod in Oklahoma, mounting direct verbal attacks on school districts, teachers’ unions and occasionally individual teachers whom he has accused of promoting “pornography” or “radical gender theory” in public schools. He was appointed to the position of state superintendent by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2020 and then won election to a new term in 2022.

He has pressured educators in several districts to resign, including a teacher who mounted a protest over the banning of certain books, and an elementary school principal who performed in drag outside of school.

Such an aggressively partisan approach surprised some of Mr. Walters’s former students, many of whom admired him as an approachable teacher who valued debate. “Walters would go out of his way to be apolitical,” said Shane Hood, who took at least three history classes with Mr. Walters at McAlester High School. As a teacher, Mr. Hood said, he gave little indication of his political views, apart from displaying large cutouts of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan.

“He was probably a schoolwide favorite,” said Mr. Hood, 22, adding that Mr. Walters’s current political persona did not fit with the teacher he knew.

Mr. Walters’s public fights have come as conservative states around the country have passed laws restricting the rights of transgender people. In Oklahoma, lawmakers have banned gender-transition care for minors and explicitly prohibited the use of gender neutral markers on birth certificates.

The Oklahoma Legislature is currently considering a bill to prohibit residents from changing their sex designation on birth certificates, and another to require public schools to adopt the policy that gender is an “immutable biological trait” and bar the use of alternative preferred names or pronouns. Another proposal, known as the Patriotism Not Pride Act, would prevent state agencies from displaying flags or symbols in support of gay and transgender people.

“It’s just incredibly harmful,” said Whitney Cipolla, a board member at Oklahomans for Equality, which advocates for gay and transgender rights. “I know queer educators who are frightened to be teaching.”

In interviews, transgender and nonbinary teenagers in Oklahoma said the political climate had made things more difficult for them.

“There’s a lot of feelings of helplessness,” said Hali, 18, a transgender girl and high school senior in the town of Claremore, who asked that her last name not be used out of concern that she may be targeted by anti-transgender activists. “You always have that little bit of fear that you could be attacked, that you could be one of the victims.”

Hali said she knew Nex after having met them as part of a program in Tulsa that offers counseling and other assistance to young people, including those who are gay or transgender. Nex was “very kind and outgoing and a very sweet person,” Hali said, but added that she did not know much about the altercation that preceded Nex’s death.

Asked about how Oklahoma schools should treat students who identify as transgender, Mr. Walters said the schools would “continue to treat every student with dignity and respect,” but would not “go into the transgender ideology by accepting all of those premises” and forcing teachers to adopt them.

Mr. Walters, who described himself as a lover and reader of history, said he saw the nation at a kind of crossroads.

“I really see there’s a civil war going on, where the left is really fighting for the soul of our country,” he said. “They are undermining the very principles that made this country great, our Judeo-Christian values and our traditions in this country.”

Getting back to those values and traditions, he added, “that’s what will unify us.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.