March 29, 2010

Students Criticize New Fences on Campus Bridges

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The University’s most visible response to the three gorge-related suicides in the past month — the 10-foot tall chain-link fences lining some campus bridges — have received a variety of responses from students returning to campus. Though the University maintains the fences play a key preventative role in campus suicide watch measures, some students have been quick to criticize the fences.

“It definitely has a negative effect on the general emotional well-being of campus,” said Justin Richmond-Decker ’12, creator of the Facebook group “Cornellians Who Don’t Want Bridge Fences.” “It feels like a prison, and that’s not what this campus needs, especially now.”

In addition to the potentially negative impact on student morale, many students argued that the fences detract from Cornell’s history and legacy. The gorges, some said, are what make Cornell distinctive.

“Putting up fences is sending the message that we wish [the gorges] weren’t a part of our campus,” Jordan Kent-Bryant ’12 said.

Some students also felt that fencing the bridges is impractical. According to Vinze, it would be impossible for the University to fence off the gorges entirely. Other students expressed concern because the University has not explained how long the fences will remain.

Vice President of University Communications Tommy Bruce emphasized that the fences are only a temporary solution.

“I completely sympathize with the concerns that have been expressed,” Bruce said. “However, the fact of the matter is the need to put in a temporary fence and to act in the short run is imperative. We have a situation where we are very much concerned about the welfare and public health of our community.”

The University has been consulting with experts, who all agree that physical barriers can help prevent suicide, Bruce said.

“Impulsivity is a very significant factor in these tragedies, and the research really does show that physical fences and barriers have been effective in preventing suicides,” Bruce said.

However, some students pointed out that three of the University’s six suicides this academic year were not gorge-related. According to Jordan Kent-Bryant, the three most recent suicides, which occurred in gorges, were a statistical anomaly.

“The probability of getting three suicides in a month is rare, but it can happen,” Kent-Bruant said. “No matter what [the University does], suicide rates are going to go down next year simply because of a regression towards the mean, just because six was very unlikely.”

According to April Miller ’13, founder of the Facebook group “Don’t Fence Us In,” the Uni­versity’s controversial decision to erect fences has divided the Cornell community at a time when it needs to be united.

“I think if we’re going to actually put an effective effort toward stopping suicides, the way to do it is not for the administration to make a decision that no one else agrees with,” Miller said. “There needs to be cooperation between the students, the faculty and the administration.”

Bruce echoed Miller’s call to come together as a community.

“We want to make sure that whatever long-term solution that emerges from this process is something that the community finds acceptable,” Bruce said. “I’ve received a lot of feedback from the community [regarding a long-term solution] … We need to be working together in order to make sure that the long-term solution is agreeable and appropriate.”

Many students commended the other preventative methods taken by the University and by the student body, arguing that these preventative methods were more positive. Richmond-Decker said the greater access to counseling, the well-being checks by residential advisors and the “Lift Your Spirits” program were particularly effective. Other students said the security guards, posters, sidewalk messages and flowers were comforting.

“[The University] should probably do more things like [‘Lift Your Spirits’] to increase the general happiness of the student body, instead of putting up fences, which actually depress people,” Justin Richmond-Decker said.

According to Valerie Roske ’13, the fences send the wrong message.

“I was walking down Thurston this morning, and I saw about ten people look up at the fences with this look in their face of total disgust,” Roske said. “I think the best thing anyone can do is just show in an unconditional way support and love and just that we’re there for each other rather than putting up barriers.”

Bruce assured that the University is doing all it can to create a positive atmosphere on campus.

“We’re using every effort we can to reach out to our students and to get through the very important message that it’s okay to ask for help,” Bruce said.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg