Valerie Barela, coordinator of UTEP's Collegiate Recovery Program, walks on campus on March 17. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

During the past 10 years, the University of Texas at El Paso has documented 17 student drug overdoses and 90 incidents of narcotics use by students, according to records obtained by El Paso Matters.

However, the UTEP Police Department does not carry Narcan, a lifesaving medication that reverses opioid overdoses, nor is it available within campus dormitories or throughout campus. Narcan has been approved by the University of Texas System for use by campus police since 2016.

“Having such a safe medication like Naloxone ready and available for students to prevent overdose death is something that I think is invaluable,” said Valerie Barela, the coordinator of the UTEP Collegiate Recovery Program. (Naloxone is the generic name for Narcan.)

UTEP police procedure for overdoses is to call the Emergency Medical Support Program of the El Paso Fire Department, said Victor Arreola, assistant director of media relations. All EMS personnel and fire trucks are equipped with Narcan.

Narcan is an opioid antagonist, meaning it reverses the effects of an overdose and allows the person to breathe. Other UT System schools, such as UT San Antonio and UT Austin, have made Narcan available to campus police, students and professors.

But UTEP’s Narcan protocol may soon change, according to Arreola.

“The UTEP Police Department continuously makes assessments to prioritize which tools and methods are most needed for campus safety. We anticipate receiving Narcan resources and beginning to train our police officers in their use later this year,” he said in a Feb. 17 email to El Paso Matters.

Barela and Gilberto Pérez, then a UTEP graduate student, worked to bring Narcan to UTEP by creating a proposal for its availability in 2019.

Their plan had three tiers: one, to make Narcan accessible in the four campus dormitories; two, to train and supply campus police with Narcan; and three, to make it widely accessible through the creation of “emergency boxes” across campus. The plan was presented to the UTEP PD, the Department of Housing and Residence Life, the Student Health and Wellness Center and the Dean of Students Office.

“I wanted to prevent a student from dying, and I even said that at our meetings,” Pérez said.

The proposal wasn’t accepted by the university’s legal department, citing too many “carve outs,” Barela said.

Valerie Barela, coordinator of UTEP’s Collegiate Recovery Program, works in her office on March 17. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Leticia Paez, the executive associate dean of the College of Health Sciences, wrote a letter of support for the proposal but included that she was not “interested in making it available at the (health and wellness) center.”

The four offices to which Barela and Pérez presented their proposal all declined to be interviewed for this article.

Acting ‘in good faith

UT System police officers are allowed to respond and administer Narcan to people they believe have overdosed on opioids, according to a 2020 UT System Office of the Director of Police policy and procedure manual. However, it is up to each individual institution whether to implement such practices on their campuses.

Pérez and Barela’s proposal was a duplication of an existing UT Austin program, called Operation Naloxone.

Created in 2016, Operation Naloxone aimed to address “the opioid crisis by increasing access to treatment, reducing unmet treatment need, and reducing opioid (heroin and nonmedical pain relievers) overdose-related deaths,” according to the school’s website.

The potential for liability was a concern that UTEP officials voiced about the Narcan proposal, Barela said.

Texas state law protects all people who administer Narcan to someone they believe to be overdosing from criminal or civil liability. UT System police manuals also establish liability exemptions for those who act “in good faith.”

Even if a person is mistakenly given Narcan but is not overdosing, there is no effect on them, said Sarah Watkins, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

“If anyone is worried about, ‘What if I give Narcan and it turns out they didn’t overdose, and am I going to hurt them by giving Narcan?’ The answer is no,” Watkins said.

Posters in Valerie Barela’s office provide information on crisis hotlines for students in English and Spanish. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The most common way of administering the medication is through a nasal spray that requires the overdosing person to inhale the medication. Other forms of Narcan include auto injection into a muscle through the form of a pen, similar to EpiPens used by diabetics, and injection into a muscle with a needle.

For students, the easiest form of usage would be through the nasal spray or injection pen which brings little harm, Watkins said.

With a rise in fentanyl-laced drugs, a deadly synthetic opioid, Watkins said Narcan accessibility is increasingly important. She also cautioned that drug overdoses can be caused by prescribed medications, not only from street drugs laced with fentanyl like cocaine or ecstasy.

“As an ER doctor, I have seen my fair share of opioid overdoses here,” she said. “Sometimes it’s on purpose to get high or as a suicidal act, but sometimes it’s accidental too.”

Accidental overdoses from prescribed medications are a concern Barela has for students.

“We have student athletes and (they tend) to be the folks who might be prescribed opioids,” Barela said.

A need for Narcan

Pérez said he saw UTEP students leave campus and seek Narcan through his work at local harm reduction advocacy groups during graduate school.

“We started to see UTEP students come into our office requesting Narcan,” Pérez said about his time at the Alliance of Border Collaboratives, an El Paso nonprofit that formerly offered substance use disorder recovery services. Free Narcan and fentanyl test strips are currently available in El Paso at Punto de Partida, an opioid crisis center.

Valerie Barela, coordinator of UTEP’s Collegiate Recovery Program, displays part of the community presentation she frequently gives, which includes information on where to access Narcan. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Neighboring educational institutions have varying Narcan access. El Paso Community College does not have Narcan because the college doesn’t have a student health center, said Keri Moe, associate vice president for external relations. Meanwhile at New Mexico State University, campus police officers are trained and carry Narcan while students and professors are permitted to carry the medication on campus, according to spokesperson Amanda Bradford.

Michael Vela, the program manager of the University of Texas at San Antonio Center for Collegiate Recovery, said he has seen a need for Narcan among the student body.

Since the fall of 2021, campus police have carried the medication while students have access to Narcan training and supplies, Vela said.

Stigma around substance use disorder

Stereotypes and prejudice cause some universities to be hesitant to implement Narcan programs, said Ashley Dickson, the collegiate recovery program coordinator at Tompkins Cortland Community College in upstate New York.

Dickson said she has seen the effects of the ongoing opioid crisis as New York grapples with high levels of addiction and death.

“It is (about) image,” Dickson said. She said having recovery programs and Narcan available at educational institutions can help to combat stigma.

However, “any college that thinks it doesn’t (have drug problems among students) is kidding itself,” she said.

A pamphlet in Valerie Barela’s office offers information for the local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

At Tompkins, the college provides students with fentanyl test strips so they can check to see if their drugs are laced. In addition to having Narcan on campus, students and the local community are encouraged to receive training on how to use the medication.

“Having Narcan on hand is a public service because (an overdose) can happen to anybody,” Dickson said. “It can be accidental like… Grandma forgot that she took two pills earlier and now she’s taken two more, and that could do it. Having Narcan available is really about protecting the people you love because so many people have access to opiates.”

For Pérez, who has lived in Austin since 2020, the drive to improve Narcan accessibility has always been about protecting his hometown community. He hoped to begin that work at UTEP.

“At some point I would love to return to El Paso and open a harm reduction program,” Pérez said. “There’s a lot of work to be done around stigma, around how we target drug use or how we talk about drug use outside of your traditional carceral systems.”

As for the next steps, Barela hopes that students and student groups will be interested in championing their efforts, and that the university will expand Narcan access. She said the UTEP Collegiate Recovery Program will soon start a new campaign for improving Narcan availability.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.