April 25, 2011

New Poll Shows Students Divided Over Bridge Barriers

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As architects finish designs for permanent barriers on seven bridges on or near campus, undergraduates are divided on the University’s means restriction initiative.

A recent report conducted by an undergraduate communications class found that 42.2 percent of students support the permanent safety structures on campus bridges, 43.6 percent oppose them and 14.1 percent neither support nor oppose them.

Although the bridge barriers remain controversial, when certain caveats were introduced — such as the assurance that the structures would not block views of the gorges or the provision that students would be able to provide feedback on the proposed designs — approval for the project rose above a two-thirds majority.

This study is the first quantifiable measurement of the student body’s stance on the bridge barrier initiative, an issue that has split the campus ever since the University installed barriers on campus bridges in response to three student suicides last spring.

Dr. Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives, noted that many of the measures that shore up support for the means restrictions project in the poll, such as the comprehensive approach to suicide prevention and the accommodation of student input in the process, are already being implemented.

According to Marchell, students’ approval of the project remains low because they do not have all of the information regarding the means restriction initiative.

“It’s understandable how people may look at this project and say, ‘Well, it depends,’” he said. “We want to provide them with the answers to the questions they may have.”

The issue of effectiveness remains central to the bridge barriers argument.

While most leading experts on means restriction agree barriers effectively deter suicide at a jumping site, only a third of Cornell undergraduates say they believe permanent safety structures on campus bridges will reduce the number of suicides at Cornell. Furthermore, 82.6 percent of students believe that suicide prevention methods at Cornell should focus on intervention methods beyond permanent safety structures on campus bridges.

“We need to better communicate that means restrictions is an effective way — not the only way — but one of the ways that we are reducing the risk of suicides among Cornell students,” Marchell said.

However, in February, The Sun reported on a new study by Prof. Garrett Glasgow, U.C. Santa Barbara, political science, that argued there is no reason to believe barriers will save lives, as Cornell has suggested. Additionally, Dan Jost ’05, an architect for Landscape Architecture magazine, published an article in January doubting the University’s justification for the barriers.

But the means restriction project is one part of Cornell’s effort to improve student mental health, services which includes new awareness initiatives for incoming undergraduates and providing faculty with a handbook on signs of distress, Marchell said.

“The problem is that people don’t have all of the information and that is part of what we are trying to change with our class campaigns,” said Lydia Cady ’11, a student in the class, COMM 3760: Planning Communication Campaigns, which conducted the survey as a part of a project to improve Gannett’s outreach to the student body.

The class conducted the campus-wide poll from March 28 to April 3 with 3,379 randomly-selected undergraduate students — 25 percent of the undergraduate population. Results had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Of the 25 percent who received the survey via their Cornell e-mail address, 31.2 percent of students responded. Each student in the class conducted one-on-one interview with their peers to formulate survey questions, according to Cady.

Original Author: Sam Cross