January 24, 2012

University Will Replace Fences With Nets This Summer

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After nearly two years of heated debate over the future of the City’s iconic gorges, Cornell will install nets intended to deter suicide on seven campus and City bridges this summer.

Cornell will remove each black fence — the barrier currently in place on all of the bridges near campus — once the net at that site is complete, according to Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson.

The construction of the nets will bring hope to many involved in the debates over how to best reduce suicides at Cornell and at college campuses nationwide, including Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and John Schroeder ’74, a member of the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board and The Sun’s Production Manager.

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to see fewer suicides once the nets are installed,” Myrick said. “This process of deciding to install these barriers was as thorough as it needed to be … it certainly deserved the time and care we put into it.”

However, Myrick added that the installation of the nets was by no means a relief for city officials or the Cornell community.

“Both at Cornell and in the City of Ithaca, what we fear the most is that call that someone has lost their life by any means,” Myrick said. “Whether it’s a shooting or a fire or a suicide from a bridge, its hard to feel relief as long as those things are possibilities.”

Schroeder praised the University for reaching a solution that was unanimously approved by the Planning board and is mutually acceptable for both Cornell and the City of Ithaca.

“The plan the University presented allowed them to achieve their goals but they also listened to the concerns of the Board about preserving the views from the bridges themselves,” Schroeder said. “I am very appreciative that Cornell was able to work through a solution … and that both sides respected each other.”

The City of Ithaca Planning Board approved construction of barriers on four University-owned bridges at a meeting on Dec. 20.

The University won the Ithaca Common Council’s approval to construct suicide nets under three city-owned bridges at a council meeting Dec. 7.

In defending their decision to approve construction on city owned bridges, city officials emphasized that Cornell made several concessions — including minimizing the barriers’ visual impact, paying for the nets’ upkeep and addressing liability concerns — since public discussion about the University’s “means restriction” initiative began in the fall of 2010.

“It was very clear all along that there was no way I could consider supporting this if it was going to to cost city taxpayers anything at all, and Cornell did address that issue comprehensively,” Common Council member Dan Cogan ’95 (D-5th Ward) said at the Common Council meeting in Dec. “This agreement is about as good as it could be in terms of trying to hold the city harmless and keeping us from having to pay.”

Cogan noted that he was “predisposed not to support means restriction,” given his belief that “it makes life less fulfilling to be surrounded by fences and guardrails and things that protect [people] from the natural world around them.”

Still, Cogan said, he decided to support the nets proposal after discussions with local mental health professionals highlighted the potential for impulsive suicides.

“Ultimately, I don’t know if the average suicide rate is going to go down substantially in Tompkins County or Ithaca, but I have talked to a number of people about the importance of having that pause between [thinking of suicide] and the ability to take the action,” Cogan said.

Myrick ’09 added that the University and its architects “went above and beyond to preserve what is really special about the bridges.”

But Common Council members Joel Zumoff (D-3rd Ward) and Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) voted against the measure, arguing the barriers fail to remedy the underlying cause of suicide and that the University’s money could be spent more productively on other mental health initiatives.

“We’re going after symptoms instead of the root causes,” McCollister said, adding that she “greatly regret[s]” her previous vote to allow Cornell to install temporary, 10-foot chain link fences in response to a string of student suicides in the spring of 2010.  “There is no proof the overall suicide rate is going to decline as a result of this.”

Zumoff added that, although he was impressed by the collaboration between the city and University, he was opposed to the nets.

“Without putting a particular monetary cost on human life, we can do a lot better with the amount of money that will be involved,” Zumoff said. “I applaud Cornell in its willingness to handle most of the costs to the city … but I cannot support this on philosophical grounds.”

Before the vote, about a dozen members of the community, including several Cornell students and employees, spoke about the nets proposal. All but one urged the council to approve the barriers.

“Many have said to us that in the depths of their depression, the fences …. indicate to them that someone cares enough about them and their constant struggle to help them live another day,” said Catherine Kim ’12, vice president of the mental health organization Cornell Minds Matter.

Original Author: Liz Camuti