Arkansas students, state officials hold event to raise awareness of substance misuse

Kristi Putnam, Secretary of the Department of Human Services, talks with State Drug Director Thomas Fisher, II before the start of the Save AR Students event on the steps of the State Capitol on Monday, April 17, 2023. Roughly 50 people came to the event to raise awareness of drug use among students. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

While Bonnie Stribling may have photos of her graduation from Arkansas Tech University, she can't remember receiving her diploma.

Two weeks before she was set to walk, amid finals, she gave birth to a son. When she returned from the hospital, Stribling, who had struggled with addiction, got high on painkillers and opiates.

"When I see pictures of my graduation day, I'm holding my newborn son and my diploma and I don't remember that day at all," she said Monday during a rally at the Arkansas Capitol.

Roughly a decade later, Stribling, who went on to work for the state Division of Youth Services, is nine years in recovery and on track to graduate from a double master's degree program in May.

"If you're a college student and you're here, the only thing that I can speak on is to get honest about what's really happening to you," she said.

Stribling was among roughly 50 people who gathered at the steps of the Capitol as part of the "Save AR Students" rally, a gathering intended to raise awareness of substance misuse among Arkansas youth.

Several speakers, including state officials and students, urged spectators to discuss the dangers of drugs with loved ones and celebrated efforts to expand access to Naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdoses.

The rally kicked off a week-long campaign that is held in the spring and fall, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services' website. A proclamation from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders read aloud during the event by Kristi Putnam, secretary of the department, points to statistics showing young adults ages 18 to 25 report the highest rate of illicit drug use of any age group.

Attorney General Tim Griffin shared the story of a university student who volunteered on several of his campaigns and died because of opioid addiction. Griffin urged those gathered at the Capitol to listen to the young people in their lives and inform them of the hazards of using drugs, especially those containing fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.

Stephanie Rose, assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, pointed to a Naloxone program at her university which she said has already helped to save lives. Thanks to a partnership between the university and state agencies, Rose said the program had increased access to Naloxone and helped train around 400 students, faculty, staff and community members on how to administer the treatment.

As part of an effort to expand the availability of Naloxone, state Rep. Tara Shephard, D-Little Rock, cited a bill she sponsored during the regular legislative session that would require opioid overdose rescue kits on public high school and state-supported institutions of higher education campuses. Sanders signed House Bill 1514 into law last week, according to a news release from her office.