Speaking from experience

Michael DeLeon could have turned his anti-vaping presentation into a recreation of an episode of “Beyond Scared Straight” where he yells at kids and tries to instill the fear of God into them – but that’s not quite his style. Though he easily could as a 12-year resident of a New Jersey prison, he chooses instead to teach and “steer straight.”

In celebration of National Red Ribbon Week, which runs from Oct. 23-31 this year, the high school and three middle schools in Washington Township booked DeLeon to speak to students and community members for a one-night presentation about the dangers of vaping and the current state of the tobacco industry. DeLeon, the founder and CEO of Steered Straight Inc., has spoken in all 50 states and preaches his message of drug prevention year round in schools, businesses and prisons, since the organization’s inception in 2007.

What makes DeLeon qualified to do so? He has a self-described unique skill set. As an ex-addict who spent 12 years in a New Jersey prison, he can speak from past experience.

“Because I lived this life, because I went in prison and experienced it. When I walked out of prison, I decided this was going to be my life,” he said. “I want to make sure I spend every waking day the rest of my life making sure kids didn’t grow up to be me. I’m obsessed with this.”

DeLeon opined the only way to solve the drug crisis in America is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. By starting with kids, teaching them the dangers and damage drugs can and will do to their bodies, he believes it could cut 50 percent of addiction in the country. Specifically, he mentioned pushing smoking, vaping and drinking until a person is 21.

Part of the process to cutting back drug use in teens could be attributed to having open lines of communication between parents and their children. DeLeon said his dad had two talks with him when he was younger: the birds and bees talk and the drug talk. Two talks, one time a piece. This is not enough, per DeLeon. He believes the conversation needs to be ongoing. According to a Columbia University National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse study, teens whose families eat dinner together at least five times per week are less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs. DeLeon combined the two – talking and dining – to create a program called “Drugs over Dinner,” where families will have a dinner together five times per week and talk about drugs, thus nipping the drug problem in the bud.

DeLeon, being the realist he is, knows it’s asking a lot for families to have dinner together five times per week – between sports, ballet, choir, working late, etc., he knows it can be hard. This led him to create a program called “table talks,” which can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, a coffee in the car on the way to a baseball game or anything in between. The goal is to have an open line of communication. For more information, visit steeredstraight.org/table.talks.

This led DeLeon to speak about the three pathways of risk, which are physiological, internalizing and externalizing. Internalizing is using drugs to cope or self-medicate, while externalizing would be more peer pressure or doing something to fit in. Physiological is more scientific; some drugs don’t work for some people, so they up the dosage or try something that will work.

This brought DeLeon to the meat of his presentation – vaping and its dangers.

“Vaping is my biggest concern for a couple of reasons,” he said. “It’s not just because kids are vaping and it’s nicotine. It’s because of where this is going. These devices are going to become the delivery system for all drugs. I believe in five years, we won’t even have needles. People won’t be shooting heroin anymore. They’ll be vaping heroin. They’ll be vaping cocaine. They’ll be vaping fentanyl. They’ll be vaping meth.”

In addition to his prediction of the future of vaping drugs, DeLeon believes 70 percent of WTHS is vaping, according to 30,000 surveys he’s done over nine states. His data supports 70 percent of all high schoolers use vapes.

In one day, DeLeon spoke to Bunker Hill Middle School, Chestnut Ridge Middle School, Orchard Valley Middle School and Washington Township High School. The next day, he visited three schools in North Jersey before visiting another three schools the following day. He believes the Washington Township school district did a lot for him, but there is room for improvement across the board.

“I was in Alexandria, La., and they had two state senators, a city council member, the board of education president, the sheriff, police chief, the mayor and me. Nine parents showed up. There are 27,000 kids in the Alexandria, La., school district.” he described.

To make the presentation the most effective, DeLeon believes the assembly should be mandatory for parents and students alike.

“I think the superintendent needs to make it mandatory that parents show up. If your kid wants to go to prom, you must be at this assembly. If your kid wants to park on campus, they must be at this assembly.” he added.

For more information about DeLeon and Steered Straight Inc., visit steeredstraight.org.