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Cornell confronts suicides, reputation

Lookouts posted on campus bridges

In the past month, two Cornell students fell to their deaths from the Thurston Avenue Bridge, which crosses Fall Creek. In the past month, two Cornell students fell to their deaths from the Thurston Avenue Bridge, which crosses Fall Creek. (Heather Ainsworth/ Associated Press)
By Mary Esch and Michael Hill
Associated Press / March 18, 2010

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University, an Ivy League school known for its spectacular gorges and haunted by a reputation for suicides, took the extraordinary step of posting lookouts on bridges and going door to door to check on students after three undergrads plunged to their deaths in the past month.

The move by university officials was made after what a Cornell administrator called an “especially painful week’’ in which two of the deaths occurred. It’s not clear whether all three were suicides; university spokeswoman Claudia Wheatley said yesterday that while school officials could not discuss the individual cases, one was ruled a suicide and the other two were under investigation.

At least three other students killed themselves this academic year, bringing the total to six confirmed or suspected suicides.

Cornell officials insist the school’s suicide rate is in line with the national average, noting that before the recent spate there were no student suicides since 2005. Timothy Marchell, director of mental health initiatives, blamed the gorges for the bad reputation.

“When a death occurs at Cornell in one of our gorges, it’s a very public experience,’’ he said.

Staff members were dispatched to the six bridges on campus, while others were told to knock on the door of every student living on campus. The outreach effort includes counseling and a coordinated series of assuring messages from the university president on down to professors, who were encouraged to tell the students to keep academics in perspective.

“It’s a kind of a bewilderment and a determination to make sure we’ve done everything we can to keep it from happening again,’’ Wheatley said.

The steep, rocky gorges bounding Cornell add to the beauty of this school of 20,000 students in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region. Students must cross over at least one of them to enter the main campus town. The bridge over that gorge is a busy crossing, as students who live on campus use it frequently to visit shops and cafes.

But the gorges, at least 100 feet deep in some places, also have figured into student suicides and very likely contributed to Cornell’s reputation as a “suicide school.’’ Despite the recent spate of suicides, Cornell officials say the reputation is undeserved.

“It’s well known that Cornell has a reputation as a ‘suicide school,’ which is not consistent with the reality of the statistics,’’ Marchell said in a Web video posted on the school’s “Caring Community’’ site.

The most accepted suicide rate for college students is about 7.5 a year per 100,000 students, said Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas in Austin. That would put Cornell, a school of about 20,000 students with 14 confirmed suicides since 2000, at the average.

Students say the gorge deaths are becoming uncomfortably routine. “What’s disturbing is to have so many in the last month,’’ said Emily Farina, a 22-year-old senior.