Criminal Justice Theatre: A Lesson in Conflict Management

Two quick clicks from a toy gun and it was over for Miranda Hayden and Caroline Martinez-Carranza, two Radford University students role-playing as police officers in a class exercise last week.

The scene, the final one of the day in Professor Tod Burke’s police and society class, played out quickly on the Bondurant Auditorium stage, ending almost as soon as it began.

Tod Burke & students

Professor Tod Burke addresses  participants in  his police and society class.

Hayden and Martinez-Carranza had been called to a domestic dispute by Burke, portraying a police dispatcher. The two walked quickly into the room, where Stephanie Goad, a theatre student playing a person threatening suicide, fired the gun at them.

“Instead of rushing in, they should have taken cover,” Burke said of the students’ hasty entrance. “This is why we do this exercise, so they can learn here before they have to confront these issues in the real world as police officers, where this result would have been tragic.”

Burke and Theatre Professor Wes Young stage the exercise annually, with students from the Department of Theatre & Cinema acting out domestic dispute scenarios. This year, six students from Burke’s class participated. Portraying the disputants were theatre students who yelled, screamed and fought convincingly, while Burke’s students, trying to recall what they had learned about conflict management, attempted to restore order.

“The purpose is to integrate conflict management theory, as we studied in class, with a practical exercise to help students better understand the intricacies and dangers associated with domestic conflicts,” Burke said. “For students in criminal justice, particularly those wishing a career in law enforcement, it gives them an opportunity to experience the role a police officer plays in resolving conflict when tension is at its peak.”


The program allows both criminal justice and theatre students to practice what they have learned in the classroom.

Christopher Cooke, a student in Burke’s class, may have had a slight advantage over the others. He works as a police officer with the National Guard, answering domestic dispute calls within the military “every couple of months,” he said. Even with his extensive experience—he’s been in the National Guard for three years—Cooke said he learns plenty from the class exercise.

“The more I keep doing it and going over it, the better I can get,” the sophomore from Manassas said.

The learning wasn’t limited to Burke’s students. Young noted, “Any time theatre students get to use their training outside the context of traditional theatre, it’s a very good experience and very eye-opening.”

A day before the exercise, the two groups rehearsed the scenes. However, nothing was scripted. Burke’s students were armed with what they had learned in class, and Young’s theatre students were told to just go with it.

“All of these students just had the improvisation techniques class, which I teach, and a lot of the principles we go over in that class prepared them to do this,” Young said. “All we had to do was give them a few basic circumstances, and they were able to run with it. It was a good opportunity for them to put those principles in practice.”

Mock officer Hayden, a sophomore from Marion, said the exercise taught her a valuable lesson about ensuring her personal safety in tense situations.

“I was so eager to help the ones in dispute, I lost thought of what could have been around the corner,” she said. “I lost sight of the most important thing: my safety. I will know from now on to make sure my line of vision is open to the whole room and allow no one to get in my way.”

Nov 10, 2011
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7769