'Sophia Charter' designed to make Dunedin students safer

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 30 Jul 2020, 1:46PM
University of Otago Sophia Crestani died at a party at a flat in October 2019. (Photo / Supplied)

'Sophia Charter' designed to make Dunedin students safer

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 30 Jul 2020, 1:46PM

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.

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.

Crestani, a 19-year-old 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.''

Many of 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.

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."

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."

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 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'

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."

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."

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.

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," 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 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 Crestani's tragic death was a devastating blow for the student community.