Anyone familiar with Ithaca is also familiar with the ubiquitous bumper sticker and City slogan “Ithaca Is Gorges”. But bridges span those gorges, right on or near Cornell University’s campus, and students traverse those bridges by foot on their way to and from classes and town. When you combine Ithaca’s gloomy climate with the Ivy League pressure cooker, it’s no surprise that many of those students (a Cornell study says about 15%) frequently contemplate suicide, including jumping from the bridges. And over the years, many have! More specifically, from 1990 to 2010, there were 29 suicide attempts, 27 of which were successful, on the seven bridges located on or near campus.
Cornell was so concerned about the bridges’ magnet-like pull on suicide contemplators that it undertook anti-suicide bridge renovations in 2006 or so. But at that time a virtually suicide-proof alteration — the installation of nets under the bridges — was rejected because it would tarnish the scenery. Instead Cornell took half-measures, like building the side walls of the bridges a bit higher, and curving them somewhat. When several more kids threw themselves to their death from those same bridges, Cornell did an about face and is now implementing the net concept.
But the parents of one of the kids who jumped after the renovations have sued Cornell, and the City of Ithaca as owner of the bridge in question, alleging, basically, that they should have gotten it right the first time.
Cornell and Ithaca recently moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but a Federal Court judge, himself a Cornell graduate, denied the motion, holding that Cornell and the City had a “duty to maintain the . . . bridge in a reasonably safe condition [so] as to prevent suicides”. The case will likely end up in front of a jury one day.
I know it might be hard for some people to wrap their brain around the concept of holding a University liable for a student’s self-inflicted death, but there is another way to look at it. Cornell’s failure to suicide-proof those bridges, when it knew their deadly history, and knew that masses of impressionable, depressed and stressed young people whom they invited to live on their campus, would continue to traverse those bridges day in and day out, was equivalent to leaving a loaded gun on the students’ night tables. If a student picks the gun up off the table, and sticks it in his mouth, and ends his life, would you blame Cornell, at least a little? Think about it!
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