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Vigils held nationwide for nonbinary Oklahoma teen who died following school fight

A photograph of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died one day after a fight in a high school bathroom, is projected during a candlelight service at Point A Gallery, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Oklahoma City.
Nate Billings
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AP
A photograph of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died one day after a fight in a high school bathroom, is projected during a candlelight service at Point A Gallery, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Oklahoma City.

EDMOND, Okla. — Vigils took place across the nation for an Oklahoma teenager who died the day after a fight in a high school bathroom in which the nonbinary student said they were a target of bullying.

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old who identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, got into an altercation with three girls in an Owasso High School bathroom who were picking on Benedict and some friends. The girls attacked Benedict for pouring water on them, the teen told police in a video released Friday.

Benedict's mother called emergency responders to the family home the day after the fight, saying Benedict's breathing was shallow, their eyes were rolling back and their hands were curled, according to audio released by Owasso police.

While a two-week-old police warrant states that investigators were seeking evidence in a felony murder, the department has since said Benedict's death was not a result of injuries suffered in the fight, based on the preliminary results of the autopsy.

Vigils for Benedict were held in Oklahoma and locations across the country, including Boston, Minneapolis, New York and Southern California in the days following the student's death.

Dozens of people held candles and listened to passionate speeches at a gathering Sunday evening in El Paso, Texas.

"I've gone from heartbroken to angry," said a community organizer named Lorena, who urged religious leaders to speak out against discrimination.

"My call to you is to stand up and make it clear that is what is being done should not be done in your god's name," Lorena said. "Stand up and take back your religion from the conservative right."

Patricia Saquilo, left, and her daughter Allyson Andrade, 13, and Hadley Mayopulos, 13, participate in a community candlelight vigil for Nex Benedict on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Owasso, Okla.
Mike Simons / AP
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AP
Patricia Saquilo, left, and her daughter Allyson Andrade, 13, and Hadley Mayopulos, 13, participate in a community candlelight vigil for Nex Benedict on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Owasso, Okla.

In Huntington Beach, California, Kanan Durham, executive director of Pride at the Pier, said Friday that "this single moment cannot be the only way that we honor Nex."

"This is a lot for all of us," Durham said in a report by KABC-TV in Los Angeles. "This community has experienced grief like this so many times before."

Many of the gatherings were organized by LGBTQ+ groups to protest against the frequent bullying suffered by nonbinary teens. Benedict's family says Nex was bullied at school.

At a vigil Saturday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the president of TahlEquality said Benedict's death was traumatic and the rights group arranged for licensed therapists to be available at the event.

"It's really hard being an LGBT community member in Oklahoma nowadays because suicide ideation and suicidal thoughts happen quite a bit," Sanj Cooper told KOKI-TV, adding that the LGBT+ community was moved to speak out after Benedict's passing.

"If anything we are impassioned, the fire in our belly has been lit up again to continue to fight," Cooper said. "If anything it doesn't oppress or keep us from our voice from being heard. If anything it makes it louder."

More than two dozen people gathered Friday at All Saints Episcopal Church in McAlester, Oklahoma, for a vigil organized by the McAlester Rainbow Connection.

Matt Blancett, who organized the event for the LGBTQ+ group, said it was important to hold a vigil in McAlester because of the murder of Dustin Parker, a transgender man, in 2020.

"It shows people that we have a community, we are here, we're not going anywhere," Blancett said.

All Saints Priest Janie Koch said it is important for people to reach out for support.

"It is very very important as the gamut of emotions are cycling to watch out for each other, to be mindful of one another," Koch said.

In audio of the call to police, Benedict's mother, Sue Benedict, said she wanted authorities to file charges. The officer who responded can be heard in the hospital video explaining that the teen started the altercation by throwing the water and the court would view it as a mutual fight.

According to a police search warrant, Sue Benedict indicated to police on Feb. 7 that she didn't want to file charges at that time. She instead asked police to speak to officials at Owasso High School about issues on campus among students.

The Feb. 9 search warrant, which was filed with the court on Feb. 21, also shows investigators took 137 photographs at the school, including inside the girl's bathroom where the fight occurred. They also collected two swabs of stains from the bathroom and retrieved records and documents of the students involved in the altercation.

The police department said it does not plan to comment further on the teen's cause of death until toxicology and other autopsy results are completed.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press