In his three years as Oklahoma's state superintendent of public faculties, Ryan Walters, a former highschool historical past trainer, has become one of the crucial strident tradition warriors in a state identified for politics main conservative.

After the loss of life earlier this month of a 16-year-old non-binary pupil a day after an altercation in the highschool ladies' toilet, homosexual and transgender advocates accused Mr. Walters of fomenting an environment of harmful intolerance in public faculties.

In his first interview reacting to the loss of life of the scholar, Nex Benedict, Mr. Walters informed the New York Occasions that the loss of life was a tragedy, however that he had not modified his views on find out how to deal with it of gender points in faculties.

“There should not many sexes. There are two. That is how God created us,” mentioned Mr. Walters, saying that he didn’t imagine that non-binary or transgender individuals exist. He mentioned Oklahoma faculties don’t permit college students to make use of most popular names or pronouns that differ from their delivery gender.

“At all times deal with people with dignity or respect, as a result of they’re made within the picture of God,” Mr. Walters mentioned. “However that doesn't change the reality.”

Nex BenedictCredit score…Sue Benedict/Sue Benedict, through Related Press

Mr. Walters, who’s in the end answerable for Oklahoma's public faculties and has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the very best workplace, has been one of many strongest voices within the state making an attempt to forestall the dialogue and promotion of LGBTQ points in faculties. His fellow Republicans within the Legislature have supported a wave of recent legal guidelines and proposals geared toward homosexual and transgender individuals.

In interviews, transgender college students mentioned the rhetoric of officers like Mr. Walters was seen by their classmates as permission to harass and bully in school.

And at an Oklahoma board of schooling assembly this week, Sean Cummings, the vice mayor of a city adjoining to Oklahoma Metropolis often known as The Village, accused the anti-gay and anti-transgender insurance policies of Nex's bullying counsel. “You introduced it,” he mentioned, addressing Mr. Walters immediately.

Questions stay in regards to the bullying that members of the family say Nex skilled at Owasso Excessive College earlier than the toilet altercation on Feb. 7, and what connection it may need needed to his loss of life. Police on Wednesday mentioned Nex had not died from trauma, a discovering Mr. Walters reiterated.

“We mentioned the loss of life was in a roundabout way associated to the combat on the faculty,” he mentioned, noting that the investigation was ongoing.

Nick Boatman, a spokesman for the Owasso Police Division, mentioned investigators have reviewed the video from the highschool and plan to launch it “in some unspecified time in the future.” Investigators, he mentioned, have but to find out what induced the loss of life of the scholar.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of the advocacy group GLAAD, known as the loss of life “a tragic, mindless and stunning assault that ought to by no means be forgotten” in an Instagram submit this week.

Mr. Walters mentioned the tragedy was compounded by exterior legal professionals making an attempt to make a political level.

“I believe it's horrible that we’ve some left-wing radicals who’ve determined to run with a political agenda and attempt to weave a story that’s not true,” he mentioned. “You took a tragedy, and also you had some individuals making an attempt to use it for political achieve.”

Officers performed interviews with college students and employees at Owasso Excessive College. The college district mentioned the altercation lasted lower than two minutes and the scholars concerned had been then in a position to stroll to the nurse's workplace.

No police report was made till after Nex was taken to a hospital by a member of the family, police mentioned. They went house that day. The subsequent day, Nex was taken to the hospital by native docs and was pronounced lifeless. The state health worker's workplace declined to touch upon the post-mortem or any toxicology outcomes, however mentioned its last report will finally be made public.

A lot of the criticism that Mr. Walters acquired targeted on his current appointment of Chaya Raichik to a state committee. Ms. Raichik, who has posted anti-gay and anti-transgender content material on her X account, Libs of TikTok, is a part of a committee that considers the appropriateness of college library books. “Ryan Walters has created a devastatingly hostile atmosphere for trans, two-spirit and gender non-conforming college students,” mentioned Nicole McAfee, govt director of Freedom Oklahoma, which helps transgender and homosexual rights. Since Nex's loss of life, they mentioned: “I've seen extra occasions than I can rely individuals sharing a picture that Ryan Walters posted throughout his marketing campaign of individuals in a rest room with language that particularly demeans trans youth.”

However for years, Mr. Walters, 38, has been an unapologetic lightning rod in Oklahoma, mounting verbal assaults directed in school districts, trainer unions and infrequently particular person academics whom he has accused of selling “pornography” or ” radical principle of gender” public faculties. He was appointed to the place of state superintendent by Governor Kevin Stitt in 2020 after which gained election to a brand new time period in 2022.

He pressured educators in a number of districts to resign, together with a trainer who protested the banning of sure books, and an elementary faculty principal who carried out in drag exterior the varsity.

Such an aggressively partisan strategy shocked a few of Mr. Walters' former college students, lots of whom admired him as an accessible trainer who valued debate. “Walters goes out of his method to be apolitical,” mentioned Shane Hood, who took at the very least three historical past courses with Mr. Walters at McAlester Excessive College. As a trainer, Mr. Hood mentioned, he gave little indication of his political opinions, apart from displaying giant cutouts of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan.

“He was most likely a favourite in school,” mentioned Mr. Hood, 22, including that Mr. Walters' present political persona didn’t match the trainer he knew.

Mr. Walters' public struggles have come as conservative states throughout the nation have handed legal guidelines limiting the rights of transgender individuals. In Oklahoma, lawmakers banned gender transition help for minors and explicitly banned the usage of gender-neutral markers on delivery certificates.

The Oklahoma Legislature is presently contemplating a invoice to ban residents from altering their gender designation on delivery certificates, and one other to require public faculties to undertake the coverage that gender is a “immutable organic trait” and prevents the usage of various most popular names or pronouns. One other proposal, often known as the Patriotism Not Satisfaction Act, prevents state businesses from displaying flags or symbols in assist of homosexual and transgender individuals.

“It's simply extremely dangerous,” mentioned Whitney Cipolla, board member of Oklahomans for Equality, which helps homosexual and transgender rights. “I do know queer educators who’re afraid to show.”

In interviews, transgender and non-binary youngsters in Oklahoma mentioned the political local weather has made issues tougher for them.

“There's quite a lot of emotions of helplessness,” mentioned Hali, 18, a transgender highschool senior within the city of Claremore, who requested that her final title not be used out of concern that she could also be focused by anti-transgender activists. . “You all the time have that little little bit of concern that you just may be attacked, that you just may be one of many victims.”

Hali mentioned she acquired to know Nex after assembly him as a part of a program in Tulsa that gives counseling and different help to younger individuals, together with those that are homosexual or transgender. Nex was “very type and outgoing and a really candy particular person,” Hali mentioned, however added that she didn't know a lot in regards to the altercation that preceded Nex's loss of life.

Requested about how Oklahoma faculties ought to deal with college students who establish as transgender, Mr. Walters mentioned faculties “will proceed to deal with each pupil with dignity and respect,” however won’t “enter into the ideology transgender accepting all these premises” and forcing. academics to undertake them.

Mr. Walters, who describes himself as a lover and reader of historical past, mentioned he noticed the nation at a sort of crossroads.

“I actually see that there’s a civil battle happening, the place the left is de facto combating for the soul of our nation,” he mentioned. “They’re undermining the very ideas which have made this nation nice, our Judeo-Christian values ​​and our traditions on this nation.”

Returning to these values ​​and traditions, he added, “is what’s going to unify us.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed analysis.

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