Culver City school official issues warning on illicit drugs

Wave Staff and Wire Reports

CULVER CITY — The drug overdose death of a 15-year-old student in Hollywood Sept. 13 prompted the Culver City Unified School District to send a bilingual health alert to parents of district students Sept. 17 warning about the dangers of illicit drugs.

Melanie Ramos died on the floor of a girls’ bathroom on the campus of Helen Bernstein High School after taking a fentanyl-laced drug she bought from a teen at a nearby park. Her friend, who was not identified, was hospitalized for drug overdose symptoms.

In the health alert to Culver City parents, school Superintendent Quoc Tran said the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had issued a health alert after four adolescents were found overdosed following the purchase of counterfeit narcotic pills.

“Nationwide, there has been a growing trend of illicit drugs (particularly methamphetamine and cocaine) and counterfeit pills contaminated with fentanyl and other life-threatening substances, impacting adults and youth,” Tran said in the alert that was emailed to the homes of all district students. “Fentanyl and methamphetamine-related overdose deaths have increased in Los Angeles County … and continue to rise at an alarming rate.

“Fentanyl is a high potency synthetic opioid that is colorless and odorless and can cause rapid respiratory depression resulting in accidental death,” the email continued. “Awareness of the risk of fentanyl in counterfeit pills, stimulants and other substances sold outside of pharmacies is necessary for the general public, including youth and adults.”

Tran advised parents to talk to their children about drug use “using honest language that emphasizes [your] values and concerns around drug use.”

He advised parents of youth who might be taking drugs to contact a health care provider or school site health team member for available resources.

Los Angeles police have announced the arrest of a15-year-old boy on suspicion of manslaughter for allegedly selling the fentanyl-laced drug to the two Bernstein High School students.

A 16-year-old boy also was arrested for allegedly peddling drugs to a third student in a park two blocks from the school.

The first suspect was arrested Sept. 15 in the Hollywood area. Moore said he lives with his grandmother, and police who searched their residence found other pills in his possession.

The second suspect, a 16-year-old boy, was not arrested in connection with Ramos’ death, Moore said, but is believed to be associated with the 15-year-old suspect in that case. The chief said both suspects are students at APEX Academy Charter School, located on the campus of Bernstein High School.

Neither suspect was identified due to their ages. Moore said there were four victims who suffered overdoses from a series of related drug sales — which date back to Aug. 26 — though the fourth victim was given Narcan and has not come forward. He added that the arrests happened swiftly because the surviving 15-year-old girl was able to help police identify who she purchased the drugs from.

At a news briefing at LAPD headquarters Sept. 15, city officials said that the suspects were likely part of a larger drug operation.

“These two individuals are simply transferring and soldiering this distribution,” Moore said. “There is a drug operation behind this.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti said that he was not “just interested in the final distributors of the pill that pedaled this death.”

“We want to go up that chain, and anybody that’s involved in the distribution of this, the manufacturing of this,” Garcetti said. “Those who are enabling the dealers that allowed this to happen: This will not end well for you.”

According to police and Los Angeles Unified School District officials, the situation unfolded around 8 p.m. Sept. 13, when a man went to Bernstein High in search of his stepdaughter, who had not returned from school.

He found his stepdaughter suffering from apparent overdose symptoms, although she was still conscious and was able to tell him that one of her friends was in a girls’ bathroom, officials said. The man and a school employee found the other girl — Ramos — unresponsive in the bathroom, where she died. The other girl is still hospitalized.

Investigators subsequently learned of possibly two other overdoses involving students that occurred at nearby Lexington Park.

Police said one of those victims apparently received the anti-overdose medication Narcan at the scene and left, and has not come forward to police or been identified.

Moore said Ramos and her friend purchased at least one pill they thought was the pain killer Percocet from the 15-year-old suspect at Bernstein High School. The drug is believed to have been laced with the deadly synthetic drug fentanyl, although testing was still being performed to identify the narcotic, Moore said.

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho went to Bernstein High Sept. 14 to meet with the dead girl’s family. He lashed out at the scourge of drugs being sold to teen students at nearby Lexington Park.

He indicated that as many as six other students may have suffered from overdoses in recent weeks stemming from drugs purchased at the park.

“Lexington Park is two blocks away from this school,” Carvalho said. “Meaning Lexington Park is two blocks away from literally hundreds of teenagers.”

Lexington Park was closed Sept. 14 while the investigation unfolded.

At the Sept. 15 briefing, Carvalho stressed that the community should not conclude that Bernstein High is a “bad school.”

“No, Bernstein is a regular school, facing the same challenges as many other schools,” Carvalho said.

Carvalho pledged to mount a “very, very aggressive awareness campaign” with parents and students to let them know of the potential deadly consequences of “just popping a pill” to “get a cheap high.”