Student death from overdose of fentanyl pills on campus prompts action

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Melanie Ramos, a 15-year-old student who died of a drug overdose this week at Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood, loved to travel, dreamed of one day joining the military and was best friends with her sisters.

‘Full of life’ is how one family member described her – and as far as they know Melanie was not using drugs.

“You can tell when a child is struggling all over the place. They isolate themselves and don’t want to be social, not even with their family members, but that wasn’t the case here,” Gladys said. Manriques, a family member who spoke on their behalf, “She was very respectful and made sure to let her mother know where she was at all times.”

On Friday, Melanie’s family – and an entire school community – were in shock over the girl’s death. The teenager and a friend allegedly bought pills containing the deadly fentanyl from a 15-year-old boy on campus who was arrested for manslaughter. Melanie’s body was found in a school bathroom, a shocking breach in the shelter schools are supposed to provide and a young death that shines a spotlight on Los Angeles’ explosive fentanyl pill crisis.

“I think we failed in many directions,” Manriques said. “This pill is a poison. I call it the devil’s pill, and it’s going to continue unless you start breaking the chain.

In the process, the city’s top leaders – Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore and Superintendent of Schools. Alberto Carvalho – promised urgent action as law enforcement officials on the ground bluntly described the massive and dangerous influx of drugs.

Johann Hervert, 18, the cousin of Melanie Ramos, sits next to a memorial to her on the steps outside Bernstein High School.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“A pill kills,” said LAPD Captain Lillian Carranza, who oversees the Gang and Narcotics Division, adding that the term “containing fentanyl” is a weak misnomer. “It’s fentanyl pure and simple. It’s not laced with fentanyl… We get hundreds, maybe thousands of pills a day; 10,000 pills every other day, that’s not unusual” for drugs that are cheap to make and transport and “pushed hard by drug dealers and cartels.”

“Tell your kids: You can’t tell if drugs contain fentanyl by look, taste, smell or feel,” Garcetti said. “A dealer can be a friend or a so-called friend or classmate. They may not even know what substance they are supplying.

Moore promised quick justice in the distribution chain.

“These were students selling to students,” Moore said, “and we’re looking for people who are just using them for their access to this campus.” He said raising public awareness — leading to prevention — is the best strategy, but it would also help bring school policing to campus.

Carvalho said that at least in the short term, he will step up security on the Bernstein campus, which is also home to two other schools. He also wants to double down on the school system’s existing public awareness campaign and work with public and private entities to provide more activities and safe spaces for students.

Amid their grief, Melanie’s family expressed their anger on Friday, saying the school system had failed to protect students – and “our Melanie must be the example”.

Melanie’s 15-year-old friend also overdosed and was hospitalized. Melanie thought she got Percocet, a risky addictive opioid in itself that doctors prescribe to help with moderate to severe pain, police said.

In addition to the 15-year-old suspect, a 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of selling narcotics for allegedly selling pills near Lexington Park. Tuesday to a third student, a 17-year-old boy from Hollywood High School. The identities of the arrested boys have not been released as they are minors. They are students at Apex Academy, a charter school on the Bernstein campus.

Police say a fourth female student overdosed in the park, but her identity is not known.

It’s “surprising” that this happens on a campus, where safety is expected, but these pills can be easily obtained and taken anywhere, said Dr. Gary Tsai, director of prevention and drug control for the county health department. , which issued an alert on Thursday about the growing danger of illicit pills.

“Somebody can take that in any context, can’t they?” said Tsai. “Could be a school bathroom, a library bathroom. Maybe a church bathroom. And that’s the scary part. And it’s a risk for someone who has never [before] used as a drug in their lives.

In 2021, according to the alert, fentanyl was identified in approximately 77% of adolescent drug overdose deaths nationwide, and data from 2015 showed that more than 80% of drug overdose deaths among teenagers aged 15 to 19 were unintentional.

“Fentanyl and methamphetamine-related overdose deaths increased in Los Angeles County even before the pandemic and continue to rise at an alarming rate,” the alert notes.

The deadly impact of illicit pills can be profound, with fentanyl being 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social media has made drug dealers more accessible to drug addicts and teens looking for something to ease their anxiety and think they’re getting prescription drugs, public health and law enforcement experts say. ‘order.

Pupils leaving school on Friday afternoon – amid a makeshift memorial to Melanie – said some teachers spoke briefly about the danger of drugs, but there was no concerted education campaign and widespread on campus since the incident.

Stephany Ramirez, a ninth-grade student at the STEM Academy of Hollywood, also on the Bernstein campus, said her teachers spoke to students about Melanie’s death and asked them what they thought.

“In one of my classes today, we were doing stations and one of the areas of the station was what needed to be done to make it stop,” she said.

Maria Agueda, Stephany’s mother, said the district contacted parents, telling them they would warn students about the dangers of drug use. Agueda said she supports police bringing in dogs and conducting random, unannounced drug searches on campus.

Naomi Corado, a ninth grader, said teachers told students this week to be careful of drugs. The school has postponed an assembly originally scheduled for Friday to next week due to Melanie’s passing, Naomi said. She thinks the district plans to tackle drug use at the next assembly.

Naomi’s mother, Norma Arteaga, said she was worried about what was happening on campus.

“I want more security so the kids don’t bring drugs,” she said in Spanish.

LA Unified offers substance abuse education at all levels, said Timothy Kordic, project advisor for health education programs in the district’s Instruction Division. And the materials have been updated specifically to include the risks of fentanyl in what district specialists believe is an age-appropriate way.

The district’s approach combines providing information with teaching and rehearsing life skills, such as resisting peer pressure. That’s about eight to 16 hours of classes per year, Kordic said.

Additionally, high school students must take a semester-long health course — which covers the subject — as a condition of graduation.

While there is always a need to update and revise what is taught, Kordic said, helpful additional measures could include improved training for teachers, more direct outreach to parents, and the creation of more peer groups. peers.

Apex spokesperson Glenn Gritzner said the school takes potential drug abuse seriously, including conducting random searches and providing a low student-advisor ratio that “allows us to connect personally with each student and their family. He said a local non-profit organization trained students and staff to recognize the signs of an opioid overdose, and staff members were trained in how to administer naloxone, a potentially life-saving drug to treat overdoses.

Melanie’s family – amid their anger and grief – are asking for more.

“I am angry that these children got their hands on these pills and decided to distribute them at school knowing what it can do to someone. … There is someone who is linked to them and someone who hired them,” Manriques said. “We want [the district] to consider us. Don’t let us just read what we see on the news. I think we deserve to be informed. I think they can do better on that. We have a million unanswered questions.

Melanie’s mother is too upset to speak publicly, Manriques said – and the girl’s sisters are “devastated”.

“How do you tell a 7-year-old girl that her sister isn’t coming home anymore? she asked. Family members helped Melanie’s mother break the news of her death to the girl’s sisters.

“Hearing him cry for almost an hour is really painful,” Manriques said.

The family have set up a GoFundMe page to help them with day-to-day expenses while grieving. By Friday night, over $7,000 of their $10,000 goal had been raised.

Johann Hervert, Melanie’s cousin and a ninth grade student at Bernstein, was with Melanie every morning on the way to school. Now, he says, he is afraid of the campus and feels lonely.

“I want the school to keep a better eye on everyone here because you never know who might be bringing drugs to school,” he said in Spanish.

Alvaro Montano, 19, graduated two years ago and had been Melanie’s friend since they were children. He wants to be remembered not as the girl who died of an overdose, but “as a happy person,” he said. “He was a very nice and sweet person and I think we deserve justice for what happened.”

Chey Payne, a ninth grader, said Bernstein High was in mourning.

“It’s been sad,” she said Friday morning. “Some of our teachers are sad, some are just trying to get over it.” Chey said drugs were already a problem in middle school; but now that she’s in high school, more and more students are overdosing.

“You have to learn to say no,” she says. “You have to be careful because the world is a dangerous place.”

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Los Angeles Times

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