This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.  Credit: Toby Talbot / AP file

Two Maine school districts filed a federal lawsuit this month against consulting firm McKinsey & Company, claiming the firm’s work for opioid makers fueled an epidemic that harmed children and increased the cost of special education.

Regional School Unit 34 in Old Town and RSU 68 in Dover-Foxcroft filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Dec. 20.

Nationwide, school districts are suing McKinsey & Company, which gave sales advice to drugmakers, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and other drug companies, that sped up the distribution of addictive painkillers. Now school districts in Maine are dealing with increased costly special education services — the result of children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and whose families are struggling with opioid addiction and death, the lawsuit alleges.

In a separate class-action lawsuit, school districts from across the country — including nearly 30 in Maine, with RSU 34 being one of them — sued opioid manufacturers in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. They were seeking $127 billion in damages from manufacturers and distributors.

The lawsuit brought by RSU 34 and RSU 68 argues that the opioid epidemic, which killed nearly  500,000  people in the United States between 1999 and 2019, required many public school districts “to expand and divert already scarce resources to support” children harmed by opioids.

“These students disproportionately require mandated special education and related services or present behavioral and emotional challenges and disrupt classrooms, which in turn place burdens on schools,” the lawsuit said.

Melissa Hewey, a lawyer with Drummond Woodsum who represents RSUs 34 and 68 in the lawsuit, said the opioid epidemic is a problem nationwide, but it has hit Maine and the two counties where the school districts are located — Piscataquis and Penobscot counties — especially hard.

“Clearly a class-action lawsuit isn’t going to solve this problem,” she said Thursday. “But it’s significant that these districts have stepped up to make a statement about the level of destruction that this problem has caused in our schools.”

The suit also claimed that by “turbocharging” opioid sales, McKinsey & Company escalated Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, births, which left schools with large, unfunded costs. Special education services are not limited to children born with the syndrome, but extend to students living in homes where family members are battling addiction, the suit said.

“Plaintiffs, and similarly situated school districts in Maine, have had to increase resources or divert resources away from other essential functions because of McKinsey’s schemes to increase opioid sales,” the suit said.

Costs to public schools have included increased disability evaluations, numbers of students qualifying for educational disability, classroom therapies and services, administrative expenses and resources more frequently being redirected from classroom instruction to address behavioral disruptions, according to the suit.

Hewey’s clients have a better chance at gaining some relief by filing this suit rather than joining another that involves many other plaintiffs, she said.

“What we’re trying to do with all this litigation is hold the various entities responsible,” she said. “Also to shine a light on the fact that … this has had a detrimental effect on schools and it’s been a very costly thing to handle the additional special education and support they need to provide to students who are victims of the crisis.”

In a statement Wednesday, McKinsey & Company said it would defend itself “against cases relating to our past work for opioid manufacturers because that work was lawful and we deny any allegations to the contrary.”

A spokesperson for the company said settlements with 50 state attorneys general gave the company a chance to “be part of the solution to the opioid epidemic and contained no admission of wrongdoing or liability.”

“We believe that the settlements we entered into with the states also resolve claims that may be brought by municipalities or school districts. … The funds provided by these settlements will be used by the state governments to support communities throughout those states,” the company’s statement said.

Bangor Daily News writer Josh Keefe contributed to this story.