After Nex Benedict’s death, LGBTQ youth group saw 200% rise in crisis contacts from Oklahoma

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A national LGBTQ youth nonprofit said crisis calls from Oklahoma more than tripled in the weeks after transgender student Nex Benedict died there on Feb. 8. 

Lance Preston, founder of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, said the group’s crisis hotline for LGBTQ young people received 1,097 contacts, including calls and online messages, from Oklahoma in February — an increase of more than 200% from its monthly average of 350 contacts.

The group received just under 1,000 of those contacts after Feb. 16, when Nex’s death began to receive widespread media attention. Of the 1,097 contacts, 87% reported incidents of bullying in Oklahoma schools. 

“The high volume of contacts underscores the pressing need for intervention and support services — support services that are far too often unavailable, especially in rural areas of the country,” Preston said during a news conference Thursday hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

In an email following the news conference, Preston told NBC News that he believes the spike in contacts is partially due to an increase in awareness of the group and its crisis services.

Nex — who was transgender and used he and they pronouns, according to friends and family — died a day after a fight at Owasso High School. The Owasso Police Department released a series of videos that show the hours following the fight, including body camera video from a police officer’s interview with Nex, in which he described how three students “jumped” him after he threw water on them because they were bullying him and his friend for the way that they dressed. 

On Feb. 21, police released preliminary information from an autopsy report that they said shows Nex’s death was not the result of trauma. However, days later, a spokesperson for the department clarified that the fight hasn’t been ruled out as having contributed to or caused the 16-year-old’s death. An official autopsy and cause of death will be released after the toxicology exam, which is still pending.

Now, a month after Nex’s death, his name has become a rallying cry among activists in Oklahoma and the rest of the country, some of whom argue that anti-LGBTQ state laws and school policies contributed to the teen’s death

Preston said the surge in crisis contacts to the Rainbow Youth Project shows that LGBTQ youth in Oklahoma are scared. On Wednesday, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for protesting funerals with signs that say “God Hates Fags,” among other derogatory slogans, protested outside Nex’s school. Ahead of the protest, the group released a statement on its website that misgendered Nex and said he “stirred up a hornet’s nest, purposefully fighting with other girls at the school, committing criminal acts in the process, and got the trouble” he “went looking for.”

In the 24 hours ahead of Westboro’s act, Rainbow Youth Project received 124 calls from students in Oklahoma specifically noting the upcoming protest, Preston said.

“They were concerned about the violence that that would bring or would encourage to the community and to the school,” Preston said. 

Ahead of the protest, Rainbow Youth Project partnered with Parasol Patrol, a group that shields children from protesters with umbrellas, and other local and national advocacy groups to create a counterprotest. Preston said their group drew more than 400 people, while the church’s had fewer than 10, according to KJRH-TV, an NBC affiliate in Tulsa. 

During Thursday’s news conference, Chasten Glezman Buttigieg, author, advocate and husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, criticized the statement Owasso Public Schools issued before Westboro’s demonstration.  

In a statement to a local Fox affiliate on March 1, Margaret Coates, the district’s superintendent, said,

“OPS is aware that Westboro Baptist Church, an activist organization based in Kansas that routinely engages in disruptive protests, has plans to visit Owasso on Wednesday, March 6.” She added that OPS takes all safety and security matters seriously and that “district leaders are working closely with our law enforcement partners to monitor the situation.”

Buttigieg noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that tracks extremist groups, has labeled Westboro Baptist Church a hate group. In 1998, the church picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who died after being brutally beaten and tied to a fence.

“This is not an ‘activist’ group,” Buttigieg said, adding that the superintendent “wouldn’t speak to that fact and the type of hatred that is invited into a community when people in positions of power allow it to happen.”

Owasso Public Schools did not immediately return a request for additional comment. 

The Education Department has opened an investigation into Owasso Public School for allegedly failing to address previous complaints of discrimination from students. The investigation was opened following a complaint from the Human Rights Campaign.

Brock Crawford, a spokesperson for Owasso Public Schools, confirmed in a March 1 email that the district received notice of the investigation and pushed back on the allegations.

“The district is committed to cooperating with federal officials and believes the complaint submitted by HRC is not supported by the facts and is without merit,” Crawford said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

If you are an LGBTQ young person in crisis, feeling suicidal or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the TrevorLifeline now at 1-866-488-7386 or the Rainbow Youth Project at 1-317-643-4888.

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