GVSU adds safety barriers to bridge after student deaths

ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Valley State University has added safety barriers to a bridge following a student-led effort to prevent deaths by suicide.

In December 2021, a freshman died by suicide at the Little Mac Bridge. It was reportedly the fourth death by suicide on the bridge since 1977.

That stirred a GVSU senior at the time, Logan Congdon, into action.

“It felt like something had to be done,” Congdon told News 8 in March 2022. “Because you can’t save the people we’ve already lost, but we can save people that might have these thoughts in the future.”

Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University's Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)
Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)

The bridge hangs over a 70-foot-deep ravine and previously had side railings only about 5 feet high. Students walk across the bridge all the time.

“It basically connects all of our student housing from south campus into our north campus,” said Magdalyn Hallead, a GVSU sophomore and the Student Senate’s executive vice president, told News 8 Thursday. “A lot of our classes are right next to the Little Mac Bridge and also freshman housing is all right there.”

After the student’s death, Congdon and another senior, Reagan McLaughlin, petitioned on Change.org to add a safety barrier on the bridge.

“My very first day on campus, my welcome tour guide told me that somebody had jumped off the bridge previously,” McLaughlin told News 8 in March 2022.

“I kind of thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous this is still being allowed to happen,'” McLaughlin later said.

As it turns out, the student body overwhelmingly agreed with Congdon and McLaughlin. Nearly 35,000 people signed the petition.

Reflecting nearly two years after his graduation, Congdon told News 8 Thursday that despite all the signatures, he wasn’t fully convinced things would change.

“I think even when we were gathering those signatures, there was a feeling between the both of us that we might not be taken seriously, action might not be taken,” Congdon said. “But it did, and I think that’s wonderful.”

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In March 2022, GVSU’s Student Senate passed legislation urging administration to take action.

“The Student Senate body believes that the possible aesthetic drawbacks and monetary costs should not be a deterrent to establishing further safety measures on ‘Little Mac’ for the purpose of saving lives,” the resolution read.

The university eventually listened to the student body. In May 2023, construction began on a $1.3 million project to add an open-air cover to the bridge, acting as a much higher barrier. Chris Knape, a GVSU spokesperson, told News 8 Thursday that the money covered maintenance, inspections and other work.

Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University's Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)
Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)
Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University's Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)
Little Mac Bridge on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus. (Feb. 1, 2024)

Knape explained that guard rails on the Little Mac Bridge were already scheduled to be replaced, creating an opportunity to improve safety.

“It was agreed that replacing the guardrails with a fully enclosed bridge deck would offer an improved sense of security, including continuous LED lighting, while preserving the aesthetics of the bridge and the beautiful views as you walk across,” he said. “The inspiration for the open air cover came from the Transformational Link sculpture which is located in the Great Lakes Plaza to the south.”

Construction on the modified bridge was finished by August 2023. Congdon visited campus last summer to find out his vision had become reality.

“I’ll be able to somebody take my kids out there and be able to show them that bridge, and say, ‘Hey, this is what your dad was able to do.’ I think that’s something I’ll look forward to,” Congdon said.

Congdon admitted that he and McLaughlin were “really quite shocked” that it came to fruition. He said it’s “beautiful all these students came together to make that impact.”

“I think it’s just beautiful to see,” Congdon said. “I just want to encourage students out there, if there’s something you see that needs changing, speak up and you might be able to make a difference just like I did.”

Hallead, from the Student Senate, said many GVSU students now weren’t at the university when the petition was made, and it serves as an example that they, too, can create positive change.

“You always have a voice when you’re a student here, and I think that’s really important to know,” Hallead said. “I think it just shows that students are more powerful than we think. Administration doesn’t do everything, they take advice from us and we can make a lot of change through that.”

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Students still say the safety barrier is just one piece of the larger issue of student mental health. Hallead said there are many university resources students can take advantage of, pointing to the university’s counseling center offering short-term individual and long-term group therapy for free.

“I just think we need to promote our resources more,” Hallead said. “They’re not being utilized as much as they need to.”

Now a few years removed from the university, Congdon encouraged current students to put their mental health first.

“I think if I could’ve gone back, I would’ve prioritized my mental health more,” he said. “I think it’s really good to see the university is prioritizing mental health.”

GVSU students can call 616.331.3266 or stop by the UCC offices in the Student Services Building on the Allendale Campus or Room 101B in DeVos Center on the Grand Rapids campus.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline anytime by dialing or texting 988.

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