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Towson University holds vigil for Orlando shooting victims

Towson University students and faculty gathered June 14 in solidarity with people who died in a mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando Sunday morning. (Rachael Pacella / BSMG)

About 100 students and faculty members from Towson University gathered on campus Tuesday in a show of solidarity with the victims and survivors of the shooting at a gay nightclub Sunday morning in Orlando, Fla., that killed 49 people and injured dozens more.

School officials decided to hold the event, although classes are finished for the spring semester, to give students and staff who are grieving a space in which to express their feelings, said Ray Feldmann, the university's spokesman.

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That's exactly what Grace Nicholl, an executive administrative assistant at the university, needed, she said. Nicholl said she was raised in Orlando and moved to Timonium in August 2015.

Nicholl, who said she identifies with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, added that she celebrated her 18th birthday party at Pulse, the nightclub where the shooting occurred. She often patronized the club with friends because she knew she wouldn't be judged there, she told those gathered.

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"It was great to see everyone else not have to hide who they are," Nicholl said.

She heard about the shooting when she woke on Sunday morning, and felt a sense of panic, she said later.

She didn't know anyone who was injured or killed in the shooting, she said, adding that, because she is unable to go home to Orlando, the event at Towson was meaningful to her.

Orlando police identified the gunman in Sunday's shooting — considered the single largest in United States history — as American-born 29-year-old Omar Mateen. Investigators say the Florida resident called 911 moments before the attack and pledged allegiance to the self-declared Islamic State before turning an assault rifle and handgun on revelers at Pulse. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police.

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Nicholl was one of a dozen people who spoke at noon at Freedom Square, in the heart of Towson campus. The discussion immediately followed a moment of silence and reflection. Many faculty members who said they were supporters of the LGBT community on campus spoke, including Queer Student Union adviser Lisa Simmons-Barth.

"This was a homophobic act," she said of the shootings. "It's a hate crime."

To honor the victims, she read their names aloud.

Sanaullah Kirmani, an adviser to Muslim students at the school, also spoke.

"It is our duty to promote love over hate," he said. "Something like this never really goes away."

At the end of the event, Towson University Police Officer Kia Williams asked those who had gathered to hold hands.

"I don't care who they are, I don't care if you don't know them," Williams said. "What I want all of us to do as a community at Towson is to embrace each other. Embrace each other for what we have in common — it's OK to cry — embrace each other for what we don't have in common. Embrace each other because as a community we are here for each other and for other communities."

Other Orlando memorials in Towson

On June 15 at 3 p.m., Trinity Episcopal Church on Allegheny Avenue, in Towson, will toll its bell 50 times as a sign of solidarity with the family and friends of the Orlando shooting victims.

The event is part of a national effort called "Stand for Love," in which churches around the country will ring their bell once for each life lost on June 12, according to Trinity Rector Ken Saunders,

"I believe that it's important for us to show our solidarity with folks in Orlando, and to let others know that we're thinking about and mourning with them," Saunders said. "It's important for everybody to come together in a time of tragedy like this."

On June 16, members of Towson Manor Village Community Association will hold a silent vigil at Towson Manor Park, in downtown Towson. The event will consist of a 24-minute, 30-second span of silence, representing 30 seconds of silence for every victim of the shooting, according to association president Joe La Bella said.

"I'm just trying to create a space for our and surrounding communities to come together in solidarity and grief," La Bella said in an email.

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