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Federal investigation announced into bullying claims in death of Nex Benedict

<span>People attend a vigil in New York City on 26 February after the death of Nex Benedict.</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA</span>
People attend a vigil in New York City on 26 February after the death of Nex Benedict.Photograph: Sarah Yenesel/EPA

Federal authorities have announced an investigation into allegations of bullying involving Nex Benedict, the non-binary teen who died last month after a fight with classmates in a women’s bathroom at their high school in Oklahoma.

Related: New video sheds light on fight that took place before non-binary student died

The US Department of Education said in a letter on Friday that it was investigating whether Owasso public schools, outside Tulsa, had “failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students” – a violation of federal law.

Authorities said they were responding to a complaint brought by Kelley Robinson, president of LGBTQ+ rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC), that claimed the school district had notice of sex-based harassment at the high school, including “instances of bullying, violence, and harassment”, that it had failed to respond appropriately to, creating discrimination.

It remains unclear what led to Benedict’s death on 8 February, a day after the 16-year-old student told family and friends that they had been involved in a bathroom fight with classmates.

Benedict’s guardian and biological grandmother, Sue Benedict, told the Independent that her grandchild had been badly beaten by three older girls.

“I didn’t know how bad it had gotten,” Sue Benedict said of the bullying.

Authorities have not released Benedict’s cause of death, but authorities have said that a preliminary autopsy finding showed the student did not die as a result of trauma.

After the Department of Education announced it would investigate Owasso public schools’ compliance with Title IX sex-based discrimination protections and Title II disability discrimination protections, the school district issued a statement.

Schools spokesperson Brock Crawford told USA Today on Friday that 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”.

Benedict’s death has drawn renewed attention to the issue of school bullying after Owasso police released body camera video showing an officer speaking with the Benedicts in a hospital a day before Nex died.

Benedict said that on the day of the fight, they were in the bathroom.

“I was talking with my friends, they were talking with their friends and we were laughing. And they had said something like, ‘Why do they laugh like that?’ And they were talking about us in front of us,” Benedict said.

Things escalated after Benedict poured water on the students, who then responded by grabbing at their hair. Benedict then pushed one the girls into a paper towel dispenser, and eventually got thrown to the floor and beaten up.

The fight was broken up by other students and a faculty member, police say. Benedict’s family later said that details of the fight were “troubling at best” and urged authorities to mount a thorough investigation “fully, fairly and expediently”.

“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 added.

The chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, Representative Mark Pocan, said in a statement on Friday that the investigation is “an important step toward ensuring that all students in Owasso Public Schools can learn free from discrimination or harassment”.