OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy. Maine is among many states that have sued Connecticut-based Purdue PharmaOxyContin, alleging makers of legal opioids have fueled drug addiction problems. Toby Talbot/Associated Press file photo

RUMFORD – At least 30 Maine school districts have joined a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma for damages related to what the court briefing says is upward of $127 billion in additional educational costs wrought by the opioid crisis.

Eighty-six school districts from 16 states are a part of the lawsuit that was filed in April at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and is one of many related to OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy proceedings.

There are nearly 58,000 students from 12 counties, including Franklin and Oxford, that are enrolled in the 30 Maine districts and account for 33% of all public school students in the state, Maine Department of Education enrollment data shows. There are more than 250 publicly funded school districts in Maine.

The suit claims that the rise in opioid use has led to an increase in students requiring “special education or supplemental educational services.” It specifically cites Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a group of conditions that can occur in a child as a result of drug or alcohol exposure in the womb.

“The costs of meeting the developmental and educational needs of children impacted by opioids, including children exposed to opioids in utero and children whose lives and families have been otherwise disrupted by opioids, are staggering,” the briefing reads.

Among the long-term impacts of children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome are developmental disabilities that may require special education services.

The suit alleges that public schools “currently estimate additional educational costs attributable to NAS alone well in excess of $127 billion.”

Regional School Unit 10 Superintendent Deb Alden said the number of students in the Western Foothills School District requiring “specially designed instruction” has increased over the past 10 years.

“We have reason to believe that it is in part (due) to the opioid crisis,” Alden said. The more students who require special education services, the more it costs the district.

RSU 10 includes Rumford, Mexico, Roxbury, Hanover Buckfield, Hartford and Sumner.

From 2015 to 2020, the number of students identified for special education services increased by 2%, according to data from the Maine Department of Education. In the same period, the cost to fund special education increased by about 30%, to just under $460 million in the 2019-2020 school year.

RSU 10, for example, spent $6.5 million of its $28.7 million budget on special education instruction that year.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services launched a new program earlier this week called “MaineMOM” – Maine Maternal Opioid Misuse program – that “aims to improve care for pregnant and postpartum women with opioid use disorder and their infants by integrating maternal and substance use treatment services.”

Alden and the other school officials contacted by the Sun Journal declined to speak about the specifics of the suit.

“It’s kind of like, do you have a reason to believe that this has affected you and your costs and your needs? Well absolutely,” she said.

The Rumford-based district is one of five in western and central Maine that joined the suit. In addition to RSU 10, the districts include: School Administrative District 44 in Bethel, SAD 55 in Hiram, SAD 72 in Fryeburg and RSU 9 in Farmington. In total, the districts serve 35 communities.

Jay Robinson, superintendent for SAD 72, said no community is immune from the impacts of the opioid crisis.

“I’d be hard-pressed to give you an exhaustive list on all the ways opioids have affected our society,” he said.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened the opioid epidemic. Drug-related overdose deaths soared in 2020.

“When you’re in the business of supporting students to be successful and it becomes obvious that the opioid impact on families is detrimental, (it) really motivated me to want to sign on and see where the lawsuit went.”

Robinson warned, however, that he wouldn’t want to “casually support the idea” that there is a direct correlation between substance use and the increase in the number of students who qualify for supplemental resources.

Nevertheless, “special education has gone up. Absolutely,” Robinson said. “That manifests itself as more out-of-district placements, more acute needs on part of identified students.”

It’s too early to say what a ruling in the districts’ favor would mean. An attorney representing several of the Maine districts, Melissa Hewey of Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, told Maine Public that one proposed settlement would fund school-based initiatives to address the effects of the opioid crisis.

“I’ve heard everything from the state in general or places in general using it to combat the opioid crisis, which would make sense,” Alden, from RSU 10, said of a potential financial victory from the suit.

“Would it be money to take care of part of the special education costs so that it would lower the burden on the taxpayers? That would be a good idea as well,” she said.


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