Decrying the bullying that led to the recent suicides of seven youths, about 100 people gathered at Barry University Wednesday for a midday prayer vigil to honor victims of oppression.
Wearing purple as part of a national grass-roots Spirit Day rally, the crowd heard Barry administrator Thomas Paul Severino pray, ``Strengthen our resolve to stand up for justice.''
Among those in the audience on the lawn facing the campus chapel was Enbar Cohen, 22, a Barry senior who said she experienced a devastating attack in high school when someone distributed hundreds of fliers giving her name, phone number and address, saying she was a lesbian ``willing to perform sexual acts for you.''
``It was really difficult,'' Cohen said before the rally.
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``I was out to my family and they weren't happy. They didn't even want me to touch the refrigerator. And then to go to school and have that kind of harassment, it was like the last straw.''
Cohen said she had briefly suicidal thoughts about the incident, which happened at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in North Miami-Dade, but got over them quickly. Others didn't.
At the vigil, Severino read the names of the seven who ``suffered violence, hatred and oppression,'' including Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off a bridge after a roommate secretly taped him having sex.
The Barry vigil was one of several events in Wilton Manors and elsewhere in South Florida Wednesday for ``Spirit Day -- It Gets Better'' -- a viral event that spread quickly through news on youtube.com and Facebook.
In Miami Beach, about 200 people turned out for a candlelight vigil that ran from Drexel Avenue to Alton Road and back on Wednesday night. Alex Febres, 18, youth treasurer of Pridelines Youth Services and a Miami Dade College student, organized the event.
Through Bible readings and short speeches, Barry students and officials talked about the need to publicly decry bullying whenever then saw it. ``Do whatever you can to help end all discrimination,'' students were urged in a printed program. ``Let's not forget entire segments of our community.'' Severino, the associate vice president for institutional advancement, quoted Harvey Milk, a celebrated gay San Francisco politician, ``Give them hope.''
On Facebook, Spirit Day is dedicated to LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) youth who ``have committed suicide in recent weeks/months due to homophobic abuse.'' At the prayer vigil at Barry, a Roman Catholic institution, the focus was more general, covering bullying of all sorts, including against the disabled. Gays were not mentioned directly; the acronym LGBT was used once.
Later, Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the church does not tolerate any form of violence or hatred, against gays or anyone else. ``We don't ask anybody's orientation'' when they enter a church. But she acknowledged that the church's formal position is that sex is prohibited outside of marriage and Catholic doctrine firmly states that marriage is between a man and a woman.
At the Barry rally, students were not focused on doctrine. Senior Providencia Gousse said she knew that most of the thousands of students had not attended the rally. ``This is just the beginning -- spreading the awareness to prevent suicide.''
Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus also contributed to this report.