By Bobbie Hayse Messenger-Inquirer
Dec. 2, 2021

Michael speaking excitedly into mic

Michael DeLeon talks with students on Wednesday during his Steered Straight program at Burns Middle School.
Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer |

Michael DeLeon thinks positive reinforcement is the best way to reach youths of today.

DeLeon, who spent 12 years in prison for a gang-related homicide and drugs, developed his nonprofit Steered Straight as a way to tell his story to students around the world to make an impact on their lives.

While in prison, he was involved in Scared Straight programs, which are used throughout the country as a means to deter juvenile crime. Typically those programs involve convicts yelling, screaming, and sometimes threatening youths in an effort to “scare them away” from a life of crime.

“I don’t like that negative reinforcement, and I wanted to do something different to help impact kids,” he said.

Steered Straight began in 2007 as a way to teach youths and young adults about the dangers of drugs, vaping, e-cigarettes, gang involvement and criminal activity.

Since then, DeLeon has spoken with 12 million students and young adults all over the world.

Throughout this week, DeLeon has been speaking with middle and high school students across the Daviess County Public Schools district, as well as parents during one family information night.

On Wednesday afternoon, he was speaking with eighth-grade Burns Middle School students.

He told BMS students his story growing up in a household with divorced parents, abuse he incurred as a pre-teen, and how getting in with the bad crowd soon spiraled him into an eight-year battle with hard drugs and addiction. This lifestyle led to him joining a gang, and in the mid-nineties as a result of that, his mother was murdered.

“Now I have to live with the consequences of my decisions for the rest of my life,” he said.

He told students that when his parents first divorced and he began acting out, he should have answered honestly when his teachers, coaches, and peers asked him if he was OK. Now he knows asking for help, and seeking guidance doesn’t mean you are weak.

In the program, DeLeon specifically talked with students about what he referred to as the three gateway substances: nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana.

He said 90% of addicts he has spoken to in his career have all said those three drugs were how their addictions began.

Victoria Self, BMS youth service center coordinator, said the school has been dealing with vaping and e-cigarette use for some time, so she wanted DeLeon to focus some of his discussion around that to hopefully impact students.

Self encouraged students to really listen to DeLeon’s strong message that was offered on their behalf.

“This is a really important time in your lives,” she told her students, because decisions they make now can change the rest of their lives.

DeLeon began the week at Daviess County High School, where assistant principal Lance Blue agreed that there has been an increase in vaping and e-cigarette use, “to the point that I would classify it as an epidemic.”

He said e-cig and Juul usage “knows no boundaries” and impacts all walks of life and age groups. That’s why he wanted DeLeon to come and speak with DCPS students.

It’s important for all middle and high school students to hear DeLeon’s message, Blue said.

“Our students just don’t know the effects these e-cigs and Juuls are having on their bodies,” he said.

Bobbie Hayse, , 270-691-7315