Wake Up Program—sheriff, inmates talk to students about the dark side, consequences of drug use, internet abuses

By Laura Schiermeier, Staff Writer
Posted 5/11/22

VIENNA — The Maries County Sheriff’s Office recently did a Wake Up program with seventh and eighth grade students at Visitation Inter-Parish School (VIPS) in Vienna.

Maries County …

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Wake Up Program—sheriff, inmates talk to students about the dark side, consequences of drug use, internet abuses


VIENNA — The Maries County Sheriff’s Office recently did a Wake Up program with seventh and eighth grade students at Visitation Inter-Parish School (VIPS) in Vienna.

Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman created the Wake Up program about 13 years ago. He presents it at the school every two years. It was just after he began the Junior Deputy program when then VIPS Principal Mrs. Stuckenschneider asked the sheriff if he had a program geared toward seventh and eighth grade students. This is where the Wake Up program began. Heitman said he wrote it for the Catholic School students because they are more sheltered than public school students, although he said he would be happy to do the program at a public school. 

The seventh and eighth graders are getting ready to transition to high school and the Wake Up program is tailored to let them know some of the challenges they may face that they are not aware of, and also what the consequences are if they go down the wrong path.

The program is a day-long one that starts at the beginning of the school day and lasts until school is out in the afternoon. VIPS Principal Marilyn Bassett was with the students during the entire presentation. 

“It is a great program,” Mrs. Bassett said. “The students were very attentive. They learned how drugs can affect a person’s life. The students feel they are better prepared for life after graduation from here.”

Besides the sheriff, Deputy Major Scott John also presented. They brought with them some of the inmates from the Maries County Jail who talked plainly about the circumstances in their lives that led to a life of abuse and crime and ultimately jail and prison. 

Heitman said in the age of computers, cell phones and internet, the students need to know about sexting, sending and receiving inappropriate text messages, social media platforms where predators lurk, and that it is a crime to send nude photos. Heitman said these days some of the texting and messaging youth are doing is a big problem and it is happening in high schools everywhere. 

The students were very interested in the life stories of the inmates they brought to the program. The inmates, too, enjoyed being able to do something positive from their low position as a resident of the Maries County Jail. The kids asked questions such as how do they smuggle drugs into prison. The honest answer was, in their butts. Another question was were you ever raped in prison. The honest answer was, someone tried and that’s how I got stabbed. 

The program covers alcohol and drug abuse issues. It’s more graphic than the Junior Deputy program, the sheriff said. They take the kids along the path of an actual drug overdose call and they see the crime scene photos. He asked a student after that portion of the program if she would have trouble sleeping at night, and she said maybe. 

“It’s important they understand if you use drugs and overdose, your body belongs to the state until the investigation is done,” Sheriff Heitman said. “It’s a big wake up program and its good to have an understanding about what they could face” if they use drugs. It shows them consequences to negative actions. 

He said the students had a lot of questions. One question was what does the high feel like? The inmates were forthcoming and candid about their drug abuse. Heitman said many drug users began using when they were 11 to 14 years old. Most say it destroyed their lives. One man told them he spent 20 of his 40 years of life in jail. The first hit of a marijuana cigarette at age 12 changed his whole life. 

“The inmates did a great job,” the sheriff said. The inmates said if they can keep one kid from going down the wrong path, it is worth it. 

The inmates aren’t forced to do the Wake Up program. For one local guy who presented to the students, it was his second time to present at the Wake Up program at VIPS. He told them addiction gets hold of you so bad and told them not to try drugs even once. He told them, “You choose it over everything.”

One of the presenters at the school program was a female, pregnant inmate. She talked to them about her fear of having her baby born in a jail. What should be a happy time for her is not due to her problems with drug addiction. 

Sheriff Heitman, who has spent his career in law enforcement, said drug use is more common among people “who didn’t have a good upbringing.” For many, drug abuse starts at an early age.

During the Wake Up program the students saw autopsy photos of a 16-year-old girl who died of a drug overdose. They said, “She doesn’t look real.”

The students were told when they go to high school they will see stuff. A man who was first arrested for drugs when he was 14 years old said they will see drugs in school and he related to them about his experiences. 

The program informs students about some of the internet predators and perverts. A teenager may think they are interacting with another teen when it could be a stranger seeking interactions with kids. “Someone they thought was a 16-year-old boy is really a 42-year-old man,” Sheriff Heitman said. They covered about how kids get set up. They are asked to send an explicit photo of themselves and later they are threatened with exposing the photo publicly on a platform and get blackmailed for $500. The blackmailer never stops either. 

They talked about human trafficking. And, about alcohol and drug abuse and sexting. The students were informed about laws regarding sexual contact of minors with older students which can be illegal and have bad consequences. 

The program is graphic and powerful and in this way it forcefully comes across to the students. That’s what it is supposed to do—wake them up to know what it out there in the big world, and that there are consequences for going in the wrong direction. 


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