'I think we were failed': Family mourns girl who died of possible fentanyl overdose at Hollywood school

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 15: Students and community members pay their respects by placing flowers and candles on the steps of Helen Bernstein High School where a teenage girl died of an overdose on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Students and community members pay their respects with flowers and candles at Helen Bernstein High School, where Melanie Ramos died of a suspected fentanyl overdose Tuesday night. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Melanie Ramos, a 15-year-old student at Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood, loved to travel and dreamed of one day joining the Army.

Her life was cut short Tuesday night by a suspected fentanyl overdose after she and another student bought what they believed were Percocet pills from a 15-year-old boy on campus.

Melanie was found unresponsive in a bathroom by her friend's stepfather and a school employee about 9 p.m., when the campus was open for volleyball and soccer games, the Los Angeles Police Department said. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene. Her friend also overdosed and was hospitalized.

"She was a very loving child," said Xochitl Quintero, 41, Melanie's aunt. "She had a great relationship with her two sisters. Her best friend was her younger sister, who took her loss very hard."

Gladys Manriques, 36, one of Melanie's family members, said they were angry that the school system had failed to protect students — and she believes officials have been aware of drug issues on campus.

"I've talked to parents who've had their kids overdose at the school and they tried to address it with the school, but unfortunately nothing was done, and our Melanie has to be the example," she said.

"I think we were failed in many directions," Manriques said. "This pill is poison. I call it the devil pill, and it's going to continue unless you start breaking down the chain."

School officials have said they were aware of drug issues among some students and have been actively addressing the problem. And they say they will do much more to raise student and parent awareness and provide enhanced security.

Melanie, her family said, was a "good kid" who was happy and "full of life." As far as they knew, Melanie hadn't struggled with drug use. They believe that she had been peer pressured into trying drugs.

People enter Helen Bernstein School
Officials at Helen Bernstein High School have said they were aware of drug issues among some students and have been actively addressing the problem. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

"You tell when a kid struggles in any sense. They shut themselves out and they don't want to be social, not even with family members, but that wasn't the case here," Manriques said. "She was very respectful, and she made sure she let her mom know where she was at all times."

On Friday, students and teachers mourned Melanie's death and created a memorial on the front steps of the school, where people have left flowers, candles, letters and a bag of caramel candy.

“It’s been sad,” ninth-grader Chey Payne said. “Some of our teachers are sad, some are just trying to move past it. I know a lot of students feel sad about it.”

Chey said drugs were a problem in middle school; but now that she’s in high school, she’s heard about more students overdosing.

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

A 15-year-old boy — a student at Apex Academy, an independent charter school on the Bernstein campus — was arrested Thursday on suspicion of manslaughter, accused of selling the pills to Melanie and her friend.

Officials speak about the death of Melanie Ramos at Helen Bernstein High School.
L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho, center, speaks about Melanie Ramos' death at Helen Bernstein High School. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A 16-year-old Apex student was arrested on suspicion of narcotics sales for allegedly selling pills at nearby Lexington Park on 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.

Police believe there was a fourth student who overdosed at the park, but her identity is not known.

Melanie's death has prompted the Los Angeles Unified School District, city leaders and law enforcement officials to address the overdoses plaguing high schools across the state.

LAPD Capt. Lillian Carranza, who oversees the gang and narcotics division, said the exact makeup of the pills involved in Melanie's death is still under analysis, but authorities believe it was almost certainly contained fentanyl — as are the overwhelming number of the pills seized by the department.

Over the last three weeks, at least six Los Angeles Unified students, including the three from Tuesday, have been involved in the use of narcotics, “some resulting in overdose, some resulting in students being transported to a medical facility, some being immediately released to the parents,” L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho said.

Manriques said their family has plenty of unanswered questions about Melanie's death and want to know why school police, staff and security weren't patrolling the halls or blocking off the bathrooms during after-school activities.

When Melanie and her friend didn't return from school Tuesday, Melanie's mom reported her missing and filed a police report, according to Melanie's family. The stepfather of the other girl was also looking for his daughter and went to the school.

The gate of a park
A 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of selling pills Tuesday to a Hollywood High School student at nearby Lexington Park. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Police returned to Melanie's mother's home about 2 a.m. to inform her about her daughter's death.

"We're all devastated," Manriques said. "How do you tell a 7-year-old that her sister's not coming home anymore?"

She said family members helped Melanie's mother break the news of her death to the girl's sister.

"To hear her cry for close to an hour, that's really painful," Manriques said.

The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help with daily living expenses as they grieve. As of Friday afternoon, nearly $6,000 of their $10,000 goal has been raised.

Melanie's family said they were relieved to hear of the arrests, but they still want more people held accountable. They also hope that the district will do more to to educate parents and students about the dangers of drug use.

"I keep telling parents to take five minutes out of their busy day to talk to their children. Pay attention to who they're hanging out with," Manriques said. "The school district should educate the kids and the parents. If you can't do an assembly, send out fliers or use whatever app you use at your school.

"Our message for every kid out there is if you think of taking this drug or any drug that somebody or you got ahold of, think of our Melanie," she said. "Think of the pain that we're going through and the pain that you can cause your family."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.