May 3, 2010

When the Fences Come Down

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Since they were erected over Spring Break, the fences lining Cornell’s bridges have become, at least to some, an accepted fact of crossing Ithaca’s gorges. But, regardless of how familiar they have become, the current chain-link fences are not a permanent feature of the scenery. When they are removed, the administration must be ready to fully explain and defend its long-term plans for bridge barriers.

Barring an extension, the fences on the city-owned bridges will come down on June 4. If the University will follow the city’s lead and quietly remove its bridge fences at that time, Day Hall must move forward with a concrete suicide-prevention strategy — regardless of whether or not it includes permanent physical barriers on the campus bridges. Should Cornell remove its fences one month from today, there can be no ambiguity about the long-term fate of the bridges, or how that fate was decided.

Come June 4, the University will have had ample time to identify a set of expectations for a long-term plan. The finer details of any modification to the bridges will likely not be finalized, but Cornell should still explain and defend the benefits it seeks to gain from its proposed solution.

Despite all their shortcomings, these fences served as an effective physical deterrent against gorge suicides. For this reason, Cornell and the City of Ithaca tolerated their presence in the short term. While Cornell has the opportunity to develop a less invasive barrier, it should still prioritize a solution that can physically deny access to a means of suicide.

Any decision on bridge barriers must be just one aspect of a broader suicide-prevention strategy. It is important to remember that this year’s tragedies also included three students who committed suicide by other means, which no physical barrier could have stopped. Only a strong, supporting culture that emphasizes mental health can prevent these other types of suicides.

While barriers are one important preventative measure, the University’s strategy needs to address the underlying causes of suicide with a comprehensive audit of its own mental health resources, and ensure the students are made aware of them. Cornell must review every aspect of the student experience and act on opportunities to change the culture.

When the fences come down, we will lose a constant reminder of the tragedies that have occurred this spring. For many of us, this is a welcome respite, but it is important to realize that, fences or no fences, suicide prevention must remain a top priority on this campus, and we should all be working toward building a more supportive social and academic community.