Cornell On Alert after 3 Gorge Deaths

Cornell University students cross the college's Thurston Avenue Bridge in Ithaca, N.Y. on Tuesday, March 16, 2010. In the past month, three students have fallen from campus bridges. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth) AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth

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 comes after what one Cornell administrator called an "especially painful week" marred by two of the deaths. It's not clear if all three were suicides; university spokeswoman Claudia Wheatley said Tuesday that while school officials could not discuss the individual cases, one case was ruled a suicide and the other two were under investigation.

Cornell officials insist the school's suicide rate is in line with the national average of 1.5 per year at universities. 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 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 — including three confirmed last semester — Cornell officials say the reputation is undeserved. Wheatley said the last confirmed suicide by a Cornell student before this school year was 2005.

"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.

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 who was sitting with friends at an off-campus cafe.

"I think it's sad that when you hear about it, people say 'Oh, another one.' They're desensitized," said 21-year old Echo McCollum, a senior veterinary student.

But Cornell officials are still worried about the cumulative effect of multiple deaths.

On Feb. 17, the body of Bradley Ginsburg, an 18-year-old freshman economics major from of Boca Raton, Fla., was recovered from under a bridge spanning a gorge. The recovery came a day after Ginsburg's roommate reported him missing.

The body of 19-year-old sophomore William Sinclair of Chevy Chase, Md., was recovered in a gorge Thursday. The next day, a driver saw someone else drop from a bridge. Police on Tuesday were still looking for the body of 21-year-old junior Matthew Zika of Lafayette, Ind.

Police in Ithaca investigating the deaths did not return several calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Wheatley said Cornell administrators came up with the outreach program after asking themselves as series of questions: Why is this happening? How can we prevent it in the future? What can we do for our students to make them know that we care?

With spring break starting this weekend, the school is still planning events to help students. On Wednesday, the school is hosting a "Lift Your Spirits" gathering that will feature music and a wall for students to write their thoughts.

Cornell is not the only elite school to deal with a spate of suicides.

New York University, for instance, installed see-through barriers around the atrium of its Bobst Library after two students jumped or fell to their deaths in 2003. The deaths came amid a spate of suicides over the course of two years that drew national attention to the school.

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