April 11, 2010

Ithaca Is Fences

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Rand Hall — a building not known for its beauty — has finally installed a display worth looking at: a sign, written in an instantly recognizable font, reading “Ithaca is Fences?”

Though intended as a temporary measure — Mayor Carolyn Peterson has set June 4th as the deadline for their removal, as they block off a city landmark — it is unclear when they will actually be taken down.

We shouldn’t hold our breath. The University has indicated it has significant reason to maintain the fences in the short run — as they prevent “suicide contagion” — as well as in the long run — as they deter “impulse jumps.” Let’s examine both these claims.

The idea of “suicide contagion” suggests that students who already feel suicidal urges will be encouraged by highly visible suicides to go through with the act. Given the rash of suicides within such a short period, the University certainly felt that the latter students had taken comfort from the first jumpers and, possibly, that more would follow.

Can the fences prevent this phenomenon? It doesn’t seem likely — there are still many more places where students can jump; also, there are ways to get around the fences.

Furthermore, the whole notion of “suicide contagion” is problematic, as it assumes more knowledge than we can ever have. Indeed, we can never fully understand the complex motivations behind any individual suicide. Therefore, it is difficult to claim a trend is occurring; even more so, given our small sample size.

The idea that the fences will deter “impulse jumps” is similarly open to critique. The idea is as follows: There is a short window during which students are actually motivated to jump; therefore, if they are deterred at that time, they will be deterred from going through with it altogether.  The University reasons that by making the action impossible, they are making the impulse impossible.

However, this is sloppy logic. If the “impulse” only emerges in front of a location fit for committing suicide, then the impulse will not emerge by the closed-off bridges. It will emerge instead in front of some other suitable location — an unfenced bridge, library stairwell and the like. In short, if suicide is possible only where thoughts of suicide are possible, then students who wish to commit suicide will find new places where thoughts of suicide are possible.

Another argument given for the fences is that they will deter dramatic public suicides — those committed as “statements.”

This, too, does not pass muster. Like the “suicide contagion” theory, it assumes too much information about why students commit suicide.  Furthermore, if students were in fact committing suicide to make public statements, would the fences really prevent this? Surely there are other ways to commit suicide dramatically. If there is truly a “trend” — as the University’s actions would imply — then we would likely see a substitution effect.

Moreover, assessing success is incredibly tricky: The nature of suicide makes it nearly impossible to know whether the fences have worked. Indeed, it will be very difficult to locate students who will acknowledge their deterrent effect; harder still to locate those who won’t.

Even if we see a drop in suicide rates, it will be difficult to claim success. Given that the number of bridge jumps this year likely constitutes an outlier, statistical theory dictates that the number of jumps per year will regress to the mean — in our case, somewhere around zero. Therefore, we should anticipate seeing a drop in the number of suicides — but for reasons having to do with chance, not policy.

We can certainly guess another reason why the University chose this particular course of action. In addition to its concern over the safety of its students, it faces a severe publicity crisis. The fences send a clear message that the University is taking its job seriously.

However, the University could implement more targeted policies. Requiring RAs to meet with the students on their floor on a monthly basis is one idea. Making meaningful student-advisor meetings a prerequisite for course enroll is another. Both would increase the likelihood of identifying and assisting distressed students.

In this way, the University could achieve the twin goals of actually helping its students as well as publicly demonstrating its concern. In order to do so, the administration must recognize that sometimes the most lasting and meaningful structures are not the ones constructed from metal.

Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at judahbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin