In this Oct. 21, 2016, photo, a man walks past a Rite Aid in Philadelphia. Credit: Matt Rourke / AP

Nearly 30 Maine school districts have joined a federal lawsuit that argues drug use has driven up the cost of special education. 

The suit, filed in the Northern District of Ohio, seeks $127 billion in damages from opioid manufacturers and distributors for the cost of educating children born affected by opioids who require special education. The litigation has attracted nearly 70 school districts from across the country, 28 of which are located in Maine.

It could represent a new front in the battle communities are waging to hold opioid makers accountable for the costs of a drug epidemic that is set to break a deadly record in Maine in 2021. Defendants include more than a dozen pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, as well as retail pharmacy chains like CVS and Rite Aid. 

Maine school districts make up a large portion of the plaintiffs because Portland-based law firm Drummond Woodsum represents many school districts in Maine, said Melissa Hewey, a lawyer with the firm. The districts don’t have to pay any legal fees as part of the litigation, she said. 

Maine school districts that joined the suit include Bangor, Waterville and Portland, as well as smaller ones like St. George Public Schools, which has fewer than 300 students. 

More than 200 additional school districts are in talks to join the litigation, Matthew Piers, a lawyer bringing the suit, said.

The suit, filed in December and highlighted in a recent Education Week story, is one of thousands of lawsuits filed against the companies for their role in the opioid epidemic, which has killed 500,000 in the U.S. since 1999. Some, like Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, are going through bankruptcy. There is unlikely to be enough money to satisfy all the plaintiffs involved in opioid suits, both Piers and Harvey acknowledge. 

The school districts’ lawsuit is the first to try to quantify the dollar amount the epidemic has cost schools in the form of rising special education needs for children born affected by opioids, a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome, Piers said.

“What has been known for a long time is that an increase in opioids leads to an increase in NAS,” Piers said. “But until relatively recently, nobody has had a reliable method to quantify the impact of that.” 

Piers said he has a system to do just that based on a recent analysis by a Penn State professor that calculated a single year of children born affected by opioids could cost Pennsylvania up to $91 million in additional education costs over the course of their education. 

The lawyers hope that they can get some relief for their school district clients, but they also envision money from a settlement funding a large national endowment that could invest in special education services and research to help offset the damage the opioid crisis has caused children and school districts. 

But first, schools need to achieve the tricky feat of showing that their increased rates of special education are due to the opioid crisis. Not only is it difficult for schools to draw a straight line between a child’s exposure to opioids and their educational challenges, but most aren’t in the practice of determining why kids need special education. Schools usually focus on identifying student needs and meeting them, not getting at the root cause. Neonatal abstinence syndrome can lead to a variety of different learning challenges, including autism and ADHD.

“For us, understanding why they have been identified is not as important as what we can do moving forward,” Bangor Schools Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said.

Children born affected by opioids are “significantly more likely to have a subsequent educational disability,” according to recent research. The percentage of students requiring special education has risen both nationally and in Maine in recent years, increasing from nearly 17 percent of Maine students in 2015 to 19 percent in 2021, according to the Maine Department of Education. 

The number of Maine diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome peaked in 2014 at 439, more than double the number born in 2008, and nearly six times the national rate, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both the number of children born affected by opioids and special education rates have risen in recent years, but research into a link between the two is in its early stages and made difficult by a lack of long-term data.

Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled Melissa Hewey’s last name.