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Cop Psychiatrists
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SCIENCE 911: Cop Psychiatrists

Psychopaths of every description fill city streets. Police need an effective tool to help them deal with mentally disturbed people, who are responsible for nearly half of the calls to New York City's Emergency Services Unit. A psychiatric training program is giving this elite squad the techniques they need to defuse potentially dangerous situations. Frontiers accompanies cops to class and then to the drama of the streets.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Student Psychiatrists
Ideas for Further Study



of the brain



conflict resolution,
mental illness


The streets of New York aren't the only place you'll find conflict -- or people working hard to resolve it. In high schools across the nation, new programs are helping solve problems between groups and individuals. Student volunteers specially trained in communication skills, problem solving and negotiating act as intermediaries between angry students. The process -- called conflict mediation or conflict management -- helps students solve issues without violence. Why does it work? Because groups are a powerful medium for change and, not surprisingly, teenagers with problems would rather talk to fellow teens than adults.

Here's your chance to see how you would resolve difficult situations. These two scenarios are real-life conflicts that actually occurred at U.S. high schools. Divide into groups of 4 or 5 and work together to find possible solutions. Compare your solutions with the real ones. Discuss how what you've discovered could be applied to your life. As an alternative, set up hypothetical conflicts and resolve them in your group.
  1. Simmering Racial Tensions

    • The situation: Your high school in Washington, D.C. is racially diverse (52% white, 26% Asian, 12% Latino and 10% African American). Now your school is experiencing increasing diversity as a result of an influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Central America. To make matters more difficult, many new students are just learning to speak English; in fact, 42% of the students at your school speak English as a second language. Last month tempers flared and 22 students were arrested. To defuse the situation, a two-day mediation session was held for students to express their anger and contribute their ideas.

    • Your challenge: Brainstorm with your group to come up with ways to deal with stereotyping, help new students assimilate and begin to build long-term understanding among students. Write down all the ideas you think might work. Share your ideas with the other groups.

    • Hint: "I think mainly the tensions arise from misunderstandings and a lack of education about other cultures." - 12th grade student at an ethnically diverse high school

  2. Squabble Over a Stereo Speaker

    • The situation: Cassy and Jody, 10th grade students at a high school near Los Angeles, were sent to peer mediation to resolve a dispute after their loud argument in the hallway disrupted classes one morning. The night before, Cassy's stereo speaker was ruined when Judy hooked it up to a defective amplifier. Both girls are very angry, and both want the other to pay to replace the speaker.

    • Your challenge: This exercise involves dramatization. Appoint one group member to play Cassy, another to play Jody. The remaining group members are peer counselors for this session.

    • Hint: Mediators can help parties to agree on a common goal, acknowledge emotions, emphasize mutual respect, listen objectively and encourage solutions that will leave both girls satisfied.


Note to the Instructor: The solutions below reflect ideas proposed by students in conflict resolution sessions.

Solving simmering racial tensions:
  • Hold multicultural assemblies.
  • Plan activities that include the entire student body, like pep rallies, a concert, cultural days, carnivals and fairs.
  • Establish a student court to help reduce conflict.
  • Reach out to parents, with such events as an international parents night, where the presentation is interpreted in all languages.
  • Encourage students with conflicts to talk with a counselor.
  • Set up classroom time during which students can talk to each other and to teachers about cultural diversity.
  • Hire more staff members of different backgrounds who can serve as interpreters for foreign-born students and parents.
  • Make minority students feel welcome and ease language barriers with report cards in their language.

Squabble over a stereo speaker:
  • After a mediation session, Cassy and Jody decided to split the cost of replacing the speaker.


Joyce St. George, seen instructing police officers on this episode of Frontiers, also conducts conflict management workshops for high schools. She suggests that conflict mediation training for teenagers can be more valuable when students are encouraged to think up their own conflicts to resolve. You may want to try this technique, rather than using the scenarios suggested here.

CREDIT: Thanks to psychologist Scott Bennett for his ideas in adapting real-life situations for this activity.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.