September 22, 2011

Community Forum Addresses Keeping the Gorges Open, Safe

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In light of the three students who died over the summer in separate incidents, members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities discussed how to ensure the safe enjoyment of the gorges at a community forum on Thursday.After the summer incidents, the University set up four committees to examine various aspects of gorge safety, according to Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources. The forum’s purpose was to provide community members the chance to give suggestions to committee members. The committee members will report to President David Skorton in November with their recommendations, Opperman said.Many attendants at the forum said they would like the gorges to remain open to the public, but in a way that reduces risks. They recommended educating the public on ways to safely use the gorges. One of the key issues that the committees have to consider is what information students need to know to safely enjoy the gorges, said Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73. Donna Fleming, assistant director of career management at the Johnson School, suggested that the University distinguish between different areas of the gorges by safety level.“Certainly as a parent, I would like to know the spots that are sort of known for having dangerous undertows and spots where I can say to my kids, ‘Yes, it’s probably okay for you to go wading there,’’’ she said.Fleming suggested that incoming freshmen be required to take a gorge safety test.“I’m wondering if it might be possible to incorporate into orientation programs for new students some kind of gorge safety test, such as you already do for alcohol and for swimming,” Fleming said.Opperman said, however, that the University already discusses gorge safety during orientation.“There are a number of efforts during orientation. What we hadn’t considered is the idea of a test at the end of those orientation experiences,” she said.Murphy expressed concern that incoming freshman already receive more information than they can properly process.“I know for a fact that if I give newly arrived freshmen too much information about the gorges, they’re not going to see it because they have so much else going at them,” she said.Sarah Garcia, Ithaca College ’09, recommended that the committees focus on emphasizing what is safe, rather than just prohibiting any interaction with the gorges. Garcia, an instructor for Cornell Outdoor Education, also expressed concern that the current method of police enforcement was not effective in keeping people out of the unsafe areas of the gorges.“If the cops are just going to say, ‘You can’t do this, leave’ and then the cop leaves, 10 minutes later they’re just going to [go into the gorge] again,” she said. “What if instead of being told please leave, they were required to take a [gorge safety] course with COE?”Murphy noted the University already had a similar program for alcohol education, saying “there may be some models for that.” Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett, said the University’s gorge safety efforts have to focus on the different types of dangers surrounding the gorges.“In the last 13 years, we’ve seen five students die in alcohol-related falls into our gorges. So when we think about what problem we’re trying to solve, we have to think, ‘What is the intervention to try to prevent a disoriented student under the influence of alcohol from falling into the gorge?’ and that requires a different strategy from trying to inform an inexperienced hiker about the risks related to hiking,” he said.Marchell also said gorges should remain open, citing the psychological benefits of the natural areas.“Keep in mind that there is a health benefit to the experience of these beautiful and natural resources that we have. We have such a remarkable resource on our campus,” he said.Murphy said that an important issue going forward is that the University does not own all the areas where people go swimming in the gorges, so it must collaborate with the City of Ithaca to ensure that any efforts are unified and consistent.“We’ve had conversations with our colleagues in the city,” she said. “If we’re saying one thing under the suspension bridge, and they’re saying something entirely different or not at all near Ithaca Falls that can be very confusing.”

Original Author: Joseph Niczky