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'Nobody Likes Being First': Miami-Dade School Board Member Recruits Districts For Opioid Lawsuit

Joey Flechas
Miami Herald
Miami officials closed four streets under the 836 expressway in Overtown last year as health officials investigated the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Discarded needles near schools pose a safety threat to students.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is opening a new front in the war against opioids, with a board member actively recruiting other urban school systems to join the district's pending lawsuit over the effects of addictive pain medications on students and staff.

The Miami-Dade school board last month formally joined with dozens of states, counties and municipalities in a lawsuit targeting the manufacturers and distributors of opioids, including Johnson & Johnson and Wal-Mart. Originally filed in federal court in South Florida on Sept. 30, the school district's nearly 300-page lawsuit was transferred to a Northern Ohio district and consolidated with other claims from around the country.

Miami-Dade is one of the first school districts to sue. School board member Lawrence Feldman expects others to follow.

“Nobody likes being first,” Feldman said. “And now that [other school districts] don’t have to worry about doing all the paperwork, they can take what we have.”

Feldman chaired the Miami-Dade school board in 2016-17 and is also the immediate past chair of the executive committee for the Council of the Great City Schools, a national advocacy group representing dozens of urban school districts. He said he believes other districts will join Miami-Dade's lawsuit, based on discussions he has had with leaders from around the country during the council’s meetings, including a late-October conference in Louisville, Ky.

“My presumption would be that this is not a solitary case. We’re not a silo, but rather all of our school districts are [providing] some level of additional assistance to children” as a result of the opioid crisis hitting communities, he said. For example, students who have witnessed their parents' opioid use might need mental health counseling.

"Looking out for the taxpayer … was the impetus," he said. "If this is the fault of the pharmaceutical manufacturers, they should be paying the difference.”

Miami-Dade's lawsuit claims the district has had to spend money and divert law enforcement attention to mitigate the effects of the opioid crisis on schools. That includes training employees to treat overdoses and providing in-school nursing to students and staff suffering from opioid addiction, according to the lawsuit.

Credit Miami Herald
Miami Herald
North Miami Police Department and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police take part in an active shooter drill at North Miami Senior High in July 2018. School police have dealt with increased safety threats and the opioid epidemic.

"Over the past couple of years, we've had to deploy law enforcement entities to ensure that there were no needles left around schools, go under the bridges in areas close to schools, particularly in the Overtown area and downtown," Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. "Often, around the school board administration building [in downtown Miami], we have found drug paraphernalia. This is of grave concern."

When police are focused on making sure students are safe from drugs, they don't always have the capacity to keep them safe from other dangers, like armed assailants, Carvalho said.

"We cannot do both," Carvalho said. "We did it for a while. There is a price associated with that. … The settlement that we seek is appropriate compensation for the allocation of these resources into an arena that, quite frankly, falls outside of our sphere of responsibility."

Carvalho pointed to the 2017 death of Alton Banks, who was a student at Frederick Douglass Elementary School, as an example of the human toll the opioid epidemic has taken on schools and their surrounding communities. The 10-year-old died suddenly after a day at the public pool, and an autopsy found he had heroin and fentanyl in his system.

As for financial impacts, Carvalho referenced a 2005 case in which 22 people who had worked for the school district were arrested in a prescription drug ring. The district's health insurance provider at the time, UnitedHealth Group, paid out more than $50,000 in fraudulent claims.

The district has two aims in the lawsuit, he said.

"Number one, we are seeking financial compensation for losses incurred. And those are quantified by the team of attorneys involved," Carvalho said.

His ultimate goal, though, is "a complete reformation of the system, so that deceptive advertising, unethical and immoral pitching practices and the irresponsible overprescription comes to an end."

Most of the companies named in the district's lawsuit did not return requests for comment.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which makes three prescription opioid medications, argued in a statement the company's marketing of the drugs was "appropriate and responsible."

The company said: "Janssen provided our prescription pain medicines for doctors treating patients suffering from severe pain and worked with regulators to ensure safe use — everything you’d expect a responsible company to do. ... We believe litigation is not the answer to public health crises."

Read the original complaint filed by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools here:

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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