If our local government doesn’t want to protect students, action falls to us

The Channels Opinion Pages | EDITORIAL
The beach-side houses on Del Playa drive that host countless UCSB and SBCC students are on their last legs on Oct. 28 in Isla Vista, Calif. With local law only making the fencing requirement four feet tall, the towering bluffs have taken numerous students lives.
The beach-side houses on Del Playa drive that host countless UCSB and SBCC students are on their last legs on Oct. 28 in Isla Vista, Calif. With local law only making the fencing requirement four feet tall, the towering bluffs have taken numerous students lives.
Sofia Stavins

The scene at the Isla Vista bluffs is not the picture perfect, panoramic view advertised on postcards.

Instead, tipped-over porta potties leak unidentifiable fluids onto half-dead grass. Behind them, flowers and signs are placed among liquor bottles against a wire fence.

These offerings sit in memory of City College student Benny Schurmer, who died on Sept. 2. On Oct. 25, he would have turned 20 years old.

Schurmer was deeply involved in his community, especially in the arts, and his death helped reignite a fight for better safety conditions along the eroding cliff face. After the 2009 death of UCSB student Noah Krom, scrutiny led to the installation of 4-foot fencing along the cliff, but campaigns for safety conditions went largely dormant after advocates achieved this goal.

Now, $15,000 has been allocated by the Isla Vista Community Services District for portable restrooms, in hopes of reducing the chances of people approaching the cliff edge to urinate. They have expressed hopes of exploring more permanent options, but the token portable restrooms remain, fluid dripping out of their open doors as they lay on their sides, evoking the terrifying fear of someone being inside one the next time it is knocked over.

While it’s regrettable that Isla Vista locals have chosen to treat the portable restrooms this way, the degrading nature of this gesture evokes some sympathy for their actions. Almost every college and university student in Santa Barbara–whether they live in Isla Vista or not–knows someone who has fallen from the cliffs, if not several people. For it to take a death, the thirteenth since 1994, for our local government to make any movement to protect students from a danger they experience constantly, is both devastating and enraging.  For that movement from our government to be something ineffective, unsanitary, and unsafe only adds to those feelings.

County Supervisor Laura Capps has suggested an increase in the fence height requirement from 4 to 6 feet, inspections and fortifications of current fencing, and the possibility of adding lighting and more signage. All of these suggestions are both feasible and sensible. However, given the amount of properties now owned in Isla Vista by huge management companies notorious for cost-cutting, great care must be taken in their implementation. It is more than likely that the property owners along the cliffside will gladly take any economic incentive offered by local governments in order to use every possible loophole to be “in compliance” to new building regulations while in fact, protecting noone.

Other suggestions in Supervisor Capps’ plan, which has already been endorsed by the Isla Vista Community Services District, are less sensible. Specifically, the idea of giving law enforcement more power to punish college students for their admittedly irresponsible acts will in no way benefit the community. Not only will the relationship between law enforcement and locals suffer, but the knowledge of potential punishment will merely lead students to act in greater secrecy. Rather than funding punitive measures, the community ought to invest in prevention.

It is that investment from the community that feels so weak for many students. The portable bathrooms can be interpreted as a symbol of exactly how much our community cares about us. It feels like we’re only worth a thoughtless, empty gesture given far too late. The leaders who are responsible for us will only do anything while a spotlight shines on their actions–and even then, those actions are minimal. 

At the end of the day, the spotlight will fade. Media outlets will move on to a newer, more exciting story, and the greater community will forget the tragedies we have been continually suffering for decades. They will turn away and try to forget about the rowdy party kids who live in Isla Vista, and the issues we face will yet again be swept under the rug, unless we stop that from happening.

It is our responsibility as the student community to advocate for the students living in the area. It is our responsibility as the group that our leaders and government would rather demean and ignore to do what others will not, and care for ourselves and for each other. Even acts as small as allowing someone in need to use the restroom in your house, or checking on a friend at a party, or taking a turn as designated driver–despite the lack of driving–can help stop more of us from dying.

In the greater community, it is important to not let students be forgotten. While we may hear about all of the near-misses, whether due to the cliffs, or drugs, or violence, the greater community only hears about the deaths before that memory passes. We cannot let the people in this city, in this county, forget Benny Schurmer. We cannot let them forget that indifference about the safety of their youths leads to tragedy. In order to care for each other, we need to speak up for ourselves.

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