Participants in the Lycoming County Underage Drinking Court are expected to keep a "drinking log," a record of how often they imbibe. Taking a drink does not mean automatic expulsion.
"We're not going to terminate somebody if they drink," said Judge Marc Lovecchio, one of the court's co-founders. "Our primary focus, if anything, is on decision-making."
"The log is one reason why they stop (drinking), because they record their behaviors," said court co-founder Chris Deal of the West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. "We had one who said, 'I didn't realize how much I drank in a week.'"
"We're not foolish enough to think these kids will never drink again underage, with the mixed signals society sends and everything else," Lovecchio said. "We play the devil's advocate - we make them bend their minds, we confront them with issues they have to deal with."
"We focus on making them feel respected, on building rapport," Deal said. "Kids are insulted when you tell them 'Don't do drugs.' They know that. We want them to learn to think."
Before Deal and Lovecchio created the Underage Drinking Court, they "did a tremendous amount of research into what might impact the decision to not only drink, but to abuse alcohol while underage," Lovecchio said.
While formulating their program, Deal and Lovecchio conferred with Dr. David J. Hanson, professor emeritus at SUNY-Potsdam and a board member of St. Jude's Retreats.
"(The court) is an intervention that occurs before anything occurs that goes into a person's record," Hanson said. "The problem is stigmatizing young people. It's easy to get labeled and then to get pushed into, almost forced into playing a particular role. People start hanging out with people who do this behavior and become part of a subculture that continues the behavior."
In his work, Hanson stresses that the user must take responsibility for one's own substance abuse.
"People who run into behavioral problems tend not to learn the consequence of their behaviors; they never really deeply understand that decisions have consequences," Hanson said.
"There are a lot of experimental studies, for example, from as far back as the early Seventies, that people who are intoxicated can do better than we think at tasks and people who think they're intoxicated but aren't tend not to do so well.
"Anthropologists have identified societies in which people don't believe that alcohol causes the disinhibition that we generally think it does," Hanson said. "That's not to deny at all that alcohol has physiological effects but we have a lot more control over our behavior than most people think."
Hanson believes there is overwhelming evidence that people are not helpless against substance abuse.
"I think that (the Court) is using much of this understanding," he said. "They've done all sorts of research in alcohol and all sorts of other behaviors on zero tolerance, going back to the early Thirties, and it's just never been found effective: zero tolerance is intolerance.
"One of the problems with any social behavior is we don't stop often enough and think outside the box."