Simulation Tests S-CAR Students’ Conflict Techniques
Posted: April 3, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: April 4, 2014 at 7:05 am
By Buzz McClain
There were armored trucks at the checkpoints — stations manned by menacing uniformed soldiers who impolitely demanded identification papers and were unduly irritated if anything seemed amiss. Alice Peck, one of 10 George Mason University students on the scene, could see body bags on the ground near the checkpoints. They were not empty.
Later in the week, there would be wounded refugees, hostage negotiations, a prison inspection, confrontations with authorities who were reliably untruthful, a late-night emergency evacuation, a press conference with assorted media and a nightly menu of rice and beans. Students would also witness an atrocity that would stay with them well after their return home.
You might think that these George Mason students were in Syria or Crimea, but no, it was Indian River State College in eastern Florida.
Peck was a member of the contingent from George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) spending four days over spring break in a field training exercise. Deployed with a fictional organization called International Humanitarian Action, their task was to negotiate a humanitarian space that would enable them to conduct conflict assessments, deliver aid and monitor adherence to humanitarian law in a fragile and volatile conflict situation.
This was the second year for the graduate version of the multiday full immersion simulation. About 30 students from three universities besides Mason experienced what they might encounter in the field in a region where their peace-building and conflict resolution skills would be abundantly needed, yet put under other-worldly stress.
The idea, says S-CAR professor Mara Schoeny, is to expose the students to conditions they would encounter “in country” so as to reduce the shock and confusion they might experience in a real crisis situation. On the campus in Fort Pierce, Fla., the soldiers, refugees, officials, prisoners and citizens were played by students and community role players; bloody wounds, brandished weapons, physical threats, audible agony, requests for assistance and general chaos seemed real enough, nonetheless.
Students put to use skills learned in the classroom, including conflict analysis, communication, negotiation and reflective practice. It wasn’t always easy.
“It was incredibly challenging, frustrating and difficult,” says Peck. “But I learned a lot, particularly how to communicate with groups. I learned how to work with and talk with [refugees] person-to-person, to humanize them.
“At the time, it was so vividly real,” she says. “In the prison, we sat with our legs crossed and facing a wall in a dark room, and we could hear these screams across the prison. It was chilling. There were very good actors playing guards.”
Schoeny, one of the organizers who planned the scenarios, says that this year, two of the students were actually abducted and pulled from a truck by security forces. The instructions were not to lose anyone. The students had to consider how to rescue their cohorts using their S-CAR methods. They also had to deal with a prison warden, a mayor and others who may not have had their best interests at heart. “You never knew who was telling the truth,” she says. “The mayor of the town or the farmer down the street who saw something different?”
The students also had to construct Camp Hope by pitching their tents and establishing a neutral perimeter for nonviolent negotiation.
And yes, the students were being graded. The Florida experience was a requirement of an elective, CONF 665-001: Conflict Resolution in Complex Humanitarian Crises. After four days of 7 a.m. to midnight days, there were other academic obligations.
Students kept a journal of their experiences, and during the exercise, faculty “controller-evaluators” guided debriefings and provided feedback. At the end of the course, students prepared an analysis of a real-world international crisis response.
Write to Buzz McClain at firstname.lastname@example.org