June 7, 2010

Common Council Extends Deadline for Removing Bridge Fences

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The City of Ithaca Common Council voted last week to extend the deadline for removal of the temporary fences on bridges around campus for an additional 10 weeks.

Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, sent the request on May 20 and the vote passed unanimously on June 2. The fences were constructed last semester during spring break after three students committed suicide from bridges within a one-month period. This vote means that the fences may stay until August 13.

“A permanent solution will take us quite some time because there’s all kinds of community involvement, regulatory approvals and the like, that are involved,” Murphy said. “What we’re trying to determine in the 10 weeks is the design of interim measures that are more aesthetically pleasing than the chain-linked fences.”

Murphy said physical barriers are emerging as the most likely permanent solution to deal with bridge suicides. Barriers could be a variety of structures, such as fences or nets. The administration has yet to determine which restrictions are most effective on which bridge, Murphy said.

“Are all the bridges going to be fenced the same way? I don’t think so. There are issues surrounding each bridge and we need to come to a better understanding than we have already [in order to make a decision],” Murphy said.

Any permanent solution must be approved by the Common Council, which must also approve any changes to the three city-owned bridges: the two on Stewart Avenue and the Thurston Avenue bridge.

Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson said she agrees that a permanent solution is needed and the temporary fences should be removed.

“I do not like the fences,” she said. “I find that they are quite severe. They do not follow the environmental procedure and interfere with the scenery of the community.”

Peterson also said that she is strongly opposed to any fences as a permanent solution and even asked that the word “fences” be removed from the University’s initial draft proposal for an interim solution. Peterson said she does not want fences to remain on the bridges for longer than they have to, and said she believes that the community will react strongly will occur if permanent fences are approved.

However, the mayor also mentioned that temporary barriers are necessary because there are no alternatives available. She agreed with Murphy that each bridge has its own unique features and the city and University should wait until all the options are generated before making a decision.

“I am hoping that there is a solution that is more under the bridge rather than a top barrier,” Peterson said. “Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, maybe there’s some beautiful fencing that’s attractive and architecturally interesting. But we need to stay away from the chain-linked — that’s awful.”

In addition to the interim barrier request, Murphy also outlined, in an email sent to members of the Cornell community on May 20, proposals to increase staff at Gannett Health Services for the upcoming school year. She said she has seen several proposals, but the University has yet to decide on which one to implement.

These proposals include measures to increase counseling and psychological services staff, improve the effectiveness of individual case management and increase community outreach. Current proposals are based on lessons learned from the H1N1 crisis last fall, when Gannett found that additional staff addressing walk-ins and keeping in personal contact with those in isolation were effective ways to treat students.

“It will be expensive,” Murphy said. “It will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars if you’re adding staff. It will depend upon how many staff are necessary, and that’s what we are trying to figure out.”

According to Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett, Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services is currently budgeted for 25 full time staff. Dittman could not say whether more staff were expected in the future. Four hundred hours of staff time were added during the later half of the spring semester in response to the suicide crisis. The number of mental services professionals now is double what it was 10 year ago, she said.

“There continues to be support from the administration for strong, relevant and effective health services on campus,” Dittman said, “[but] we had a year that’s different from preceding years and we need to adjust for current realities. To adjust to these realities, changes need to be made.”

Dittman stressed that changes will involve using existing resources differently and only increasing funding when the additional services require new hires. Gannett’s existing staff members are better equipped to meet some of these needs because they are already involved with the community, she said.

Murphy’s proposals in the e-mail on May 20 also included additions to New Student Programs — the organization that runs Orientation Week, among other programs — which consist of videos and seminars that will address mental health issues. Murphy said the idea came from student organization leaders, who brought suggestions to a meeting on the Saturday, March 27, following the third suicide.

Sarah Jones, assistant dean of students, said the additions to the new student programs include two parts: the first is a video address and forum during orientation week, and the second is a series of follow-up seminars in September, which will include discussions about topics like health services and substance abuse.

The orientation week program involves an address by President David Skorton, a video of current students discussing their experiences at Cornell and discussions facilitated by a moderator. The program is intended as a basic introduction to talk about issues faced by new students and help ease their hectic transition into the University.

On the other hand, the September program will be voluntary, offered at different times on North and West Campuses. The goal of this initiative is to give more personal attention to those who have more specific concerns and reach out to those who are having problems adjusting, Jones said.

“Neither program is going to address suicides directly because there’s so much information overload that it’s really not the best time to provide new students with things they cannot process,” Jones said. “I think this orientation video says, ‘Hey welcome to Cornell, we’re so glad you’re here and going to be a part of this community. We all know that you’re going have great times and struggles, and here’s how to can deal and handle both of these things.’”

Original Author: Andrew Hu