Law & Courts

Schools Will Get At Least $25 Million From Opioid Lawsuit

By Mark Lieberman — July 09, 2021 3 min read
This June 17, 2019, photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
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School districts will be eligible to apply for at least $25.5 million in grants for special education programs as part of a bankruptcy court settlement agreement between state and local governments and opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma.

The grant program will be funded entirely by Purdue Pharma and geared toward abating the role that the opioid addiction crisis has played in student absenteeism, learning disabilities, and behavioral issues among public school students, lawyers wrote in a court filing Wednesday.

“Districts will be encouraged to apply for funding where it can have the greatest impact, whether for classroom services, school-based behavioral and mental services, instructional innovations, or other school-based supports,” lawyers wrote.

Lawyers plan to appoint an expert on special education to serve as lead trustee for the initiative. That person will flesh out the terms of the application process and criteria. The early description of the grant program says it will prioritize plans for programs that could be replicated elsewhere.

Matt Piers, an attorney representing school districts in numerous ongoing lawsuits against companies that contributed to the opioid epidemic, said his team hopes the trust fund will grow substantially in the coming months and years as school districts and other government entities reach bigger and broader settlements in lawsuits against other companies.

“Schools have kind of arrived in this litigation for the first time and are going to be taken much more seriously as participants, and hopefully recipients, of the outcomes of this litigation,” Piers said.

The 59 districts that joined the bankruptcy suit against Purdue Pharma will also get a small payment as part of the settlement agreement. That list includes districts in large urban areas like Baltimore; Chicago; Miami-Dade County in Florida; and Rochester, N.Y., as well as smaller or more rural districts in Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire. The amount of those payments, and when they will be distributed, hasn’t been determined yet, Piers said.

The filing emerged in tandem with the news this week that 15 states have reached an agreement with Purdue Pharma to proceed toward a settlement of at least $4.5 billion for state, local, and tribal governments as well as some private nonprofits. The lawsuit aims to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors responsible for unleashing addictive and deadly painkillers on unsuspecting communities across the country.

Governments’ fight for compensation from opioid companies has dragged on for years. More recently, dozens of school districts have gotten involved, with the support of lawyers and experts who contend that America’s K-12 system has spent at least $127 billion and counting on services for students affected by the crisis.

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An arrangement of Oxycodone pills in New York, pictured on Aug. 29, 2018. A new study shoots down the notion that medical marijuana laws can prevent opioid overdose deaths. Chelsea Shover of Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues reported the findings Monday, June 10, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The painkiller Oxycodone is among the opioids implicated in a health crisis that has school districts joining with states and municipalities in seeking damages from drug manufacturers.
Mark Lennihan/AP

One of the main cost drivers, districts and experts argue, has been the rise in students with disabilities, who require more expensive and individualized forms of instruction. Health experts have identified links between opioid use during pregnancy and a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome, which can facilitate a wide range of disabilities in infants that last for the rest of their lives.

To meet the needs of students with disabilities, as well as students who have experienced trauma as a result of family members who are addicted to opioids, districts have hired additional mental health counselors, partnered with local organizations to offer on-campus drug treatment resources, and invested in instructional aides and social workers. In many cases, districts have had to sacrifice other necessary initiatives or seek additional community support for taxes and bonds to cover these costs.

More than 85 school districts, including all the ones in the Purdue bankruptcy suit, are engaged in a class-action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. A handful of those districts are separately suing McKinsey, the consulting company that provided drug manufacturers with the marketing framework that accelerated the distribution of addictive painkillers.

Here’s a list of all the districts participating in those lawsuits. If your district should be on the list but isn’t, please get in touch: mlieberman@educationweek.org.

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