Sophia Charter aims to improve student safety

The death of student Sophia Crestani at a party at a Dunedin flat last year is "a loss that can never be rationalised, justified or forgotten", her parents say.

Sophia Crestani was a second year University of Otago student. Photo: supplied
Sophia Crestani was a second year University of Otago student. Photo: supplied
However, nine months after her death, it is hoped the launch of a charter in her memory will improve student safety and well-being in North Dunedin.

The Sophia Charter is a multi-agency agreement signed this evening by stakeholders from the University of Otago, police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, the Otago Property Investors Association, the Dunedin City Council and the Otago University Students Association.

The ultimate goal was to provide a ‘‘circle of support’’ to ensure that North Dunedin became a stronger student neighbourhood where residents took responsibility for themselves, each other and the wider community.

The charter stemmed from the Crestani family’s shared goal to ensure there would be improvements to student safety and well-being following her death.

Miss Crestani (19), a second year University of Otago student, died in October 2019 when she was caught in a stairwell pile-up at a flat known as The Manor in Dundas St.

Parents Elspeth McMillan and Bede Crestani, of Wellington, said her death was a tragic loss for them, her family, friends, community and the University of Otago community.

‘‘It is a loss that can never be rationalised, justified or forgotten.

‘‘We want some good to come out of this, and by working with the students and support organisations, we hope to keep other students safe, so that they go home to their families and mature into caring, generous adults and have full lives.

‘‘Some courageous decisions have been made since Sophia died and we are here to support and endorse this new way forward.’’

'WE DIDN'T WANT HER DEATH TO BE IN VAIN'

Many of Miss Crestani's relatives were present at tonight's signing ceremony, including her twin sister and friends from Wellington.

They gathered in a packed room in the university's clock tower building for speeches and the signing of the charter by Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins, Fire and Emergency New Zealand East Otago assistant area commander Craig Geddes, University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne, Otago coastal area commander Inspector Marty Gray and Otago University Students' Association president Jack Manning.

Ms McMillian said The Sophia Charter was developed because "we didn't want her death to be in vain."

She said her daughter wanted to be an actuary and loved children.

"She was joyful, creative, she always lit up any room she walked into. It's a big loss, not just for us - but for everyone. She always said she wanted to have children young... it's sad she won't get to fulfil those dreams."

Miss Crestani wanted to have the Otago experience and loved her time as a student, her father said.

"She loved her time here, she loved the community, she grew as a person and was making her own decisions, she was a lovely girl."

Mr Crestani said Sophia was "turning into a great young woman... It was a tragic time for us, it remains that way and always will do."

The family were working towards a second scholarship in her name, with more than $70,000 raised for the first.

Following Miss Crestani’s death, stakeholders met to renew their resolution to support students to reduce harm and to increase well-being.

Measures enabled by The Sophia Charter for Community Responsibility and Wellbeing’s and the accompanying agreement between agencies include that the university works with OUSA on opportunities to use Starters Bar in North Dunedin and other venues to support student social activity; that police continue to work with the university to establish a clear set of working principles regarding large parties and gatherings; and that the university continues to work with Government and the DCC on changes that will reduce alcohol-related harm.

'TAKE TIME TO THINK'

Ms McMillian said she hoped students would take time to assess situations they found themselves in.

"Take that time to think or assess the situation and get out if you need to. Looking for the risk, keeping their friends safe, keeping themselves safe."

Mr Crestani said alcohol was an issue in Dunedin and in New Zealand society.

"There's a lot of work to do. We'd really like to see some reform, but what we're focused on is improving what we can do and that's the off-licences or the parties.

"There's a cultural change we'd like to see where students pick up the responsibility and start to improve their own situations, with the rest of us on the outside helping them.

"We want to see them become the driving force."

Mr Crestani said they hoped that, by revisiting the charter each year and ensuring new intakes of students were alerted to it, this would enact some change.

Superintendent Paul Basham. Photo: ODT files
Superintendent Paul Basham. Photo: ODT files
Police Southern District Area Commander Superintendent Paul Basham said through the launch of the Sophia Charter, Dunedin police reiterated its commitment to building a safer environment for students and the wider community.

‘‘This tragic event has been a catalyst in bringing various communities and businesses across Dunedin together, all focused on bringing a positive change, Supt Basham said.

‘‘Our role is to ensure we continue our work with the university and the community to minimise harm and ensure that any incident is dealt with appropriately in a manner that maintains public safety.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins. Photo: ODT files
Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins. Photo: ODT files
Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins said he hoped The Sophia Charter helped to further enhance the physical and social environment for students so they felt safe and supported during such an important time in their lives.

‘‘The University of Otago has been integral part of Dunedin for over 150 years. The depth of that Town and Gown relationship means that as well sharing in each others successes, we are also united in times of grief and adversity," he said.

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne said the university was grateful for the immense courage of Sophia's parents.

‘‘From the very beginning, they have been clear that their goal is to help us make our vibrant student community safer.

‘‘It has been a privilege to walk alongside them and we look forward to honouring Sophia’s memory through positive community action.’’

Otago University Students Association president Jack Manning said Miss Crestani's tragic death was a devastating blow for the student community.

Vice-Chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne. Photo: ODT files
Vice-Chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne. Photo: ODT files

OUSA president Jack Manning. Photo: ODT files
OUSA president Jack Manning. Photo: ODT files
"The Sophia Charter reflects a commitment from our community to grow from this experience, and ensure that Otago is an environment that is supportive, inclusive, and safe.

"It is my hope that the Sophia Charter is something that all stakeholders and community members can feel a sense of ownership of, and shall result in a continuous and collaborative effort to foster the well-being of the North Dunedin community.’’

The party was held at The Manor on Dundas St. Photo: ODT files
The party was held at The Manor on Dundas St. Photo: ODT files
Full list of measures enabled by The Sophia Charter and agreement between agencies:

• That the Dunedin City Council works with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to ensure the Healthy Homes Standards are promoted, actioned and enforced; and that the Otago Property Investors Association works with landlords to promote the Healthy Homes Standards and encourage a higher standard wherever feasible.

• That the police continue to work with Otago University to establish a clear set of working principles regarding large parties and gatherings.

• That an enduring senior working group comprised of all stakeholders meet annually to report on progress and discuss any further initiatives that would enhance student safety and well-being.

• That the university continues to work with Government and the DCC on changes that will reduce alcohol-related harm.

• The university continues to enforce its Code of Student Conduct.

• The university works with OUSA on opportunities to use the Starters Bar in North Dunedin and other venues to support student social activity.

• The university works with residential colleges and Otago property investors to provide comprehensive information towards safe and responsible flatting.

• The DCC fosters a reduction of rubbish in the area by enhancing opportunities for recycling and increasing rubbish collection.

• In cases of illegal activity, police will ensure that students and non-students are dealt with appropriately in a manner that maintains public safety and aligns with the Policing Act 2008. The trust and confidence in police is also underpinned by a Campus Constable assigned fulltime to the University of Otago.

• OUSA to continue to work with police to enhance the "Good One" party register.

• OUSA develops campaigns regarding flat-related issues including sustainability, safety, health and well-being.

• OUSA participate in a North Dunedin community meeting that outlines our shared values and culture and the support services that are available to students.

• That Fire and Emergency services work with the DCC, OUSA and the Proctors Office to educate students about flat safety and party size.

• The Otago Property Investors Association works with landlords to encourage "good neighbour" behaviour by tenants.

emma.perry@odt.co.nz 
 

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