‘One pill kills’: Student overdose death calls for urgent action among educators, police

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

“Full of life,” one relative described her—and as far as they knew, Melanie wasn’t on drugs.

“You can tell when a child is struggling in any way. They shut themselves out and they don’t want to be social, even with family members, but that wasn’t the case here,” said Gladys Manriques, a family member who spoke on their behalf. “She was very respectful and she made sure to always let her mother know where she was.”

On Friday, Melanie’s family – and an entire school community – were reeling from the girl’s death. The teen and a friend allegedly bought pills containing deadly fentanyl from a 15-year-old boy on campus who has been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. Melanie’s body was found in a school bathroom, a shocking breach of the refuge schools are supposed to provide and a young death that casts a harsh spotlight on the exploding fentanyl pill drug crisis in Los Angeles.

“I think we have failed in many directions,” said Manriques. “This pill is poison. I call it the Devil’s Pill, and it will continue unless you start to break the chain.”

In the aftermath, top city leaders — Mayor Eric Garcetti, LA Police Chief Michel Moore and Schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho – have pledged to take urgent action as law enforcement officers on the ground bluntly described the massive and dangerous influx of drugs.

Johann Hervert, 18, Melanie Ramos’ niece, sits next to a memorial to her on the stairs outside Bernstein High School.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“One pill kills,” LAPD capt said. Lillian Carranza, who oversees the gangs and narcotics division, adding that the term “fentanyl-laced” is a weak misnomer. “It’s just fentanyl. It’s not laced with fentanyl… We’ve recovered hundreds, if not thousands of pills a day; 10,000 pills every other day is not unusual” for drugs that are cheap to make, transport and are “pushed hard by drug dealers and cartels.”

“Tell your kids: You can’t tell if drugs contain fentanyl by looking, tasting, smelling or touching them,” Garcetti said. “A dealer can be a friend or a so-called friend or classmate. They may not even know what fabric they are supplying.”

Moore promised swift justice in the supply chain.

“These were students selling to students,” Moore said, “and we’re looking for the people who use them solely for their access to this campus.” He said public awareness – leading to prevention – is the best strategy, but it would also help to put school police on campus.

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Carvalho said he will at least in the short term increase security on the Bernstein campus, which also houses two other schools. He also wants to double the existing school system 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 Friday, saying the school system has failed to protect students — and “our Melanie must be the example.”

Melanie’s 15-year-old boyfriend also overdosed and was hospitalized. Melanie thought she had been given Percocet, an addictive opioid that is dangerous in itself, which doctors prescribe to relieve moderate to severe pain, police said.

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

Police said there was a fourth student who overdosed in the park, but her identity is unknown.

It’s “surprising” that this is happening on a campus where safety is expected, but these pills can be easily obtained and taken anywhere, said Dr. Gary Tsai, director of substance abuse prevention and control for the provincial health department, issued a warning Thursday about the growing danger of the illegal pills.

“Somebody can have that in any environment, right?” said Tsai. “It could be a school bathroom, or a library bathroom. Could be a church bathroom. And that’s the scary part. And it’s a risk for someone who never [before] used as a drug in their lives.”

In 2021, the warning said, fentanyl was identified in about 77% of adolescent overdose deaths nationally, and 2015 data showed that more than 80% of drug overdose deaths were among adolescents aged 15 to 19. year was unintentional.

“Fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose deaths have increased in Los Angeles County even before the pandemic and continue to rise at an alarming rate,” the warning reads.

The lethal impact of illegal pills can be significant, 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 available to addicts and teens who are looking for something to calm their anxiety and believe they are on prescription drugs, according to public health and law enforcement experts.

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Students leaving school Friday afternoon — amid a makeshift memorial to Melanie — said some teachers spoke briefly about the danger of drugs, but there has been no concerted, widespread awareness campaign on campus since the incident.

Stephany Ramirez, a ninth-grader at the STEM Academy of Hollywood, also on the Bernstein campus, said her teachers have spoken to students about Melanie’s death and asked them what they feel about it.

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

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

Naomi Corado, a ninth grader, said teachers this week told students to be careful with drugs. The school has postponed a meeting originally scheduled for Friday to next week due to Melanie’s death, Naomi said. She believes the district plans to address drug use at its next meeting.

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

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

LA Unified educates about substance abuse at every level, said Timothy Kordic, a health education program project consultant in the district’s Instruction Department. And materials have been specifically updated to incorporate the risks of fentanyl in a way that district specialists say is age-appropriate.

The neighborhood approach combines education with teaching and practicing life skills, such as resisting peer pressure. It’s about eight to 16 hours of class a year, Kordic said.

Additionally, as a graduation requirement, high school students must complete a one-semester health course covering the subject.

While it’s always necessary to update and revise what’s being taught, Kordic said, helpful additional steps could include improved teacher training, more direct help to parents and the creation of more peer groups.

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

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Melanie’s family – amid their anger and grief – wants more.

“I’m upset that these kids got their hands on these pills and decided to hand them out at school, knowing what this can do to someone. … There’s someone connected to them and someone who hired them,’ Manriques said. “We want [the district] to take us into account. Don’t let us just read what we see on the news. I think we deserve to be informed. I think they can do that better. We have a million questions that have not been answered.”

Melanie’s mother is too overwhelmed to speak in public, Manriques said — and the girl’s sisters are “devastated.”

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

“To hear her cry for almost an hour is really painful,” Manriques said.

The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with daily living expenses as they grieve. By Friday night, more than $7,000 of their $10,000 goal had been raised.

Johann Hervert, Melanie’s niece and a ninth-grader in Bernstein, was on her way to school with Melanie every morning. Now, he said, he is afraid of campus and feels lonely.

“I want the school to keep a closer eye on everyone who’s here because you never know who might bring drugs to school,” he said in Spanish.

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

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

“It’s 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 high school; but now that she’s in high school, more students are overdosing.

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

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