September 5, 2011

Teaching Gorge Safety

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The failure of abstinence-only education is hardly a well-kept secret. But while the narrative of this failure is usually limited to sex education, the intuitive reasons for its inadequacy certainly apply elsewhere.Indeed, there’s a different form of abstinence-only education — one that strikes much closer to our home, the University — that needs to be addressed. More to the point, I pose this question: Why, if abstinence-only education is so empirically ineffective, does the University maintain an “abstinence only” policy with respect to gorge swimming?Recent efforts to revamp gorge safety policy have highlighted the shortcomings of the University’s past initiatives. This year alone, three students tragically passed away in the Fall Creek gorge; in light of this devastating loss, Cornell has bolstered efforts to warn students of the dangers of straying from the gorge trails. However, I contend that these efforts would be significantly more effective were the University to take a proactive stance on educating students about the specific dangers of the gorges, as well as ways to avoid them should one ultimately decide to swim.Cornell’s present position on enjoying the gorges — as articulated by its trail map and safety information guide — is that students should simply stay on the trails and abstain from swimming. I will readily concede that the University is correct in one respect: Avoiding swimming in the gorges is absolutely the safest way to experience them. But the assumption that students would readily conform to such prohibition has been thoroughly violated. Loss of life in the gorges is hardly a new phenomenon, yet students continue to swim year after year. That the University has nonetheless failed to take a more active role in educating students on how to mitigate the dangers they may encounter therefore borders on reckless.   Specifically, three problems emerge from Cornell’s approach to educating students about the risks present in the gorges. First, the available literature doesn’t specify the sources of risk. The new signs posted around the gorges do a better job of explaining why they’re risky, but this may be too little, too late. Students should be made aware either before or soon after their arrival on campus of the many unseen dangers of the gorges, such as strong undercurrents, hazardous underwater terrain and rock formations that may easily break under pressure.Second, the available literature doesn’t distinguish between parts of the gorges that may be more dangerous than others. Risk throughout the gorges is hardly uniform; some spots, with swifter currents and more debris in the water, are inherently more hazardous than others. Students who first swim in safer waters may unwittingly assume that other stretches of the gorge are similarly safe. By clearly outlining which sections of the gorge present the most danger, the University may at least dissuade students intent on swimming from doing so in the riskiest spots.Third — and this is perhaps the largest fault I find in Cornell’s current policy — the University has heretofore made minimal effort to educate incoming students about the gorges. Beyond telling students that swimming in the gorges is prohibited, not much has been done to inform them of the nuances of the gorges, or the specific types of activities and behaviors that have led to accidents. Given that students come from all over the world, it is unreasonable to expect that each arrives on campus with knowledge of the perils of Ithaca’s unique topography. Requiring that students be made aware of the specific sources of risk would better equip them to avoid such risk and make more informed decisions regarding how they choose to enjoy the gorges.In light of these shortcomings, I would advocate the following: Cornell University should require that all incoming first-year and transfer students take either an online course or attend a seminar centered on gorge safety. Such a course would teach students about the specific types of hazards, areas to be avoided and ways to escape danger should one become imperiled.The parents of Nathaniel Rand ’12, who was one of the three students to pass away in the Fall Creek gorge earlier this summer, wrote a very poignant letter to The Sun urging Cornell to adopt similar educational measures. As Nathaniel’s parents rightfully point out, it is wrong to assume that students who are injured or killed in the gorges are willingly engaging in high-risk behavior. Indeed, this assumption requires that all students be well informed of the sources of risk associated with gorge swimming.  That premise is problematic, given the minimal information provided to students on the nature of the gorges’ risks and how to avoid them. A mandatory gorge safety course could make serious strides towards eliminating this misperception of risk.The University has likely yet to adopt such a policy because administrators fear that a course of that nature would amount to tacitly condoning gorge swimming. But let me be clear: While I certainly am not endorsing gorge swimming by any means, the University would probably get much more mileage out of teaching students how to responsibly enjoy the gorges rather than expecting students to abstain from swimming entirely.The gorges are a fundamental part of Cornell’s identity, and represent a significant component of the Cornell experience. We as members of this community are truly fortunate to be treated to the sort of breathtaking beauty that distinguishes our campus from that of any of other college. But given the dangers of our campus’s natural setting, we should all approach the gorges with a sense of caution. Towards this end, no policy is a panacea, but a mandatory course on gorge safety could significantly reduce the number of gorge injuries and deaths our campus faces.  David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter