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Elspeth McMillan and Bede Crestani have been clear in their purpose in the months since their daughter died. They want Dunedin’s students kept safe.
Their daughter died in October in the most dreadful of circumstances when she and those around her should have been having simple, carefree fun.
The second year mathematics and statistics student was believed to have died as a result of a large crush of people on a staircase at a crowded North Dunedin flat. Two others were seriously injured in the stairwell pile-up at the party, which was attended by hundreds of people. Sophia was just 19 years old.
The grief was palpable as the university and wider community came to terms with what happened. And above it all, Sophia’s parents urged change.
Soon after, they asked for a community clean-up to be held in North Dunedin in her memory. An estimated 2500 students and other volunteers helped collect rubbish. Later, supported by Sophia’s parents, the university, the city council, police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, the students’ association and landlords planned for a better future.
The pair returned to the city from Wellington this week to launch The Sophia Charter, a multi-agency pledge to help enhance student safety and wellbeing. In part, the charter renews broad, years-old resolutions to support the students of North Dunedin; the sort of pledges pursued from 2016, after 18 students were injured when a housing complex balcony collapsed during a surprise Six60 concert in Castle St.
It continues to promote student safety, safe partying and safe living, just as the groups have been doing, individually and in small subsets, for years. Except now, active and obvious collaboration will help chart a different course.
The charter promotes the idea of a “circle of support” whereby students are supported to take responsibility for themselves, knowing they are part of a much wider collaboration and, crucially, a much wider community.
Some of the work has been going on for some time: the police will continue to work with the university to establish clear principles on large parties and gatherings, and the university will continue to work with the Government and the council on changes to reduce alcohol-related harm.
It is worth noting the university, in particular, has been extremely active in seeking to reduce alcohol-related harm. Its campus-wide code of conduct and its proactive purchase of licensed venues and student flats have made the university a much more active agent in regulating student life.
The charter adds to this with a pledge to work with the students’ association to use Starters Bar and other venues to support student social activity. The association bought the bar in 2018 to arrest the decline of student bars and to provide a safe place to drink. Use of the regulated, supervised environment will likely be promoted more actively.
It is pleasing to see the Otago Property Investors Association pledging to work with with landlords to promote the healthy homes standards and to encourage a higher standard wherever feasible. In making good on their pledge to encourage "good neighbour" behaviour, the association will reinforce the sense all are in a shared community.
This, with student associations’ commitment to participate in a community meeting to outline the approach also reinforces the idea the charter is a shared, collaborative response to the shared, community need to enhance safety in North Dunedin.
Sophie’s parents said they want students to keep each other safe, so that they might return to their families and mature into caring, generous adults. The charter, promoted by a senior working group that meets annually, is a concrete step towards a goal born of tragedy.