March 29, 2010

Bridge Fences: An Unfortunate Necessity

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There is likely not a single person who takes satisfaction in the newly erected fences lining Cornell’s bridges. If Spring Break and the Sweet 16 were timely distractions, the chain-link fences bring us all back to the harsh reality of the awful events of a few weeks ago. Many students have expressed understandable dissatisfaction with the fences, and we sympathize with that dissatisfaction. The fences are undoubtedly an abominable reminder of the lives lost. But faced with a public health crisis, erecting barriers around the bridges is a necessary and appropriate short-term response by the administration.

Just like the security guards that have been watching over the bridges since the afternoon of March 12, the barriers serve to remove a means of suicide: the gorges in which the past three students have died. They do not seek to address the underlying problems plaguing students who have been actively contemplating suicide for days or weeks — that is an entirely different problem with an entirely different solution. But a logical look at the recent deaths raises the question of how to limit access to these infamous features of the Cornell landscape, at the same time as the University re-assesses its mental health initiatives and overall academic atmosphere.

This safety does come at a cost. For many people, the fences inject our idyllic campus with prison yard imagery. They mar the breathtaking aesthetics that the bridges typically offer. And, most painfully, they serve as constant reminders of the tragedies that have, to an extent, come to define this academic year.

In addition, especially with Cornell Days fast approaching, many wonder what kind of message these fences send to prospective students, parents and the rest of the outside world. Is erecting these fences worth scaring off potential students? Will they only exacerbate the bad publicity that the University has received in the past month? These are all valid questions, and indeed, the line between effectiveness and overreaction is a tricky one to toe. However, as a temporary solution, these fences are a necessary and valuable deterrent. If they stop just a single student from taking his or her own life, they justify all the aesthetic, emotional and practical criticisms that have appropriately been brought up by concerned community members.

Questions remain: How long will the current fences remain? Will they be replaced with other physical barriers, and if so, what kinds?

There needs to be serious discussion about long-term preventative measures. Barriers have not been conclusively proven to decrease overall suicide rate, as the University has stated, so there should be an ongoing dialogue about their value in Cornell’s unique situation. These long-term measures range from covering the bridges to breaking up the eight week-long grind between Winter and Spring Breaks. But it is important to consider the merits and drawbacks of each and every option. The University must make an honest assessment of the options before it, and choose those measures which balance the necessity of safety with the inconvenience of intrusion. But in the meantime, the fences serve as a sufficient and effective deterrent.