STEUBENVILLE - Jackie Sacripanti admits she wasn't prepared for the torrent of emotions unleashed when word of Saturday's "Stand Up For Steubenville" rally hit Facebook.
"I received a lot of unneeded messages from people on Facebook who thought the event was something other than what it is," she told the more than 200 people who gathered at Jim Wood Park.
They were there to show their support for the countless children and adults in the community who had nothing to do with a now-infamous end-of-summer party at which an underage girl from a nearby town was allegedly raped.
Local residents pray during a “Stand Up For Steubenville” rally Saturday at Jim Wood Park in Steubenville. Organizers said the event was to show support for the youths of the community.
Sacripanti said the backlash "surprised the heck out of me."
"Some of the people I never met before," she said. "Others I once considered friends."
Two 16-year-old members of the Steubenville High School football team, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, have been charged with raping the girl, who witnesses said was intoxicated and unresponsive.
Mays also is charged with illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material, the result of two pictures of the naked victim investigators testified were attached to text messages allegedly sent from his cell phone.
The case was thrust into the national spotlight after online activists raised allegations of a coverup, claiming police and prosecutors in the sports-crazy town are protecting Big Red student-athletes as well as the children of prominent parents.
Anonymous, an online collective of hacktivists, has issued a call for justice for the young girl, repeatedly hacking into a Steubenville High School booster website, posting screenshots of Facebook posts and Twitter messages related to the alleged rape.
Most recently, they uploaded a 12-minute video of former student Michael Nodianos crassly joking about the girl's condition and what had allegedly been done to her.
Families of Big Red athletes have reported being harassed and threatened. Last week, Steubenville police Chief Bill McCaffery's computer was shut down by an email he received and Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla reported a family member had been threatened. Police increased patrols around city schools after a threat of violence triggered a lockdown.
Sacripanti said children in the community who had nothing to do with the parties or the alleged rape "are being taunted and harassed, just because they attend Steubenville City Schools."
"Canceling this event would have been the worst thing we could have done," Sacripanti said. "If we quit, they win. I wasn't raised to be a quitter."
Michael Jett of Community Inc. pointed out those attending Saturday's rally were there "because we love our children, (not to) condone any crime."
"Pray for God to bring truth, to bring justice, to bring truth to our community," he urged the crowd. "The powers that are being set in motion are being powered by evil. We want to stand for good. We don't want to stand for fear or intimidation. We want to stand for truth and justice."
Jett pointed out some who are calling for justice for the alleged rape victim are also threatening to "come and shoot up (your) schools" and sending threatening notes to the homes of others telling them, "I hope you're peaceful in your own home."
"You can't tell me God moved you to do that," he said. "You want us to be ashamed of our traditions, you want us to be ashamed of our success, you want us to be ashamed of our children. You want our children to be ashamed of the schools they go to. If you want justice, prove it: The case is in the justice system, let them handle it."
Parent Jill Watkins broke down in tears when she told the crowd she was proud of her son "for standing up for what he believes in."
"We have so much to be proud of in Steubenville, we have pride and tradition that most people never get to experience," Watkins said, adding that it's important for parents to make sure their children understand that "every decision you make will have consequences" and help them make good choices.
Jeno Atkins, a Big Red student athlete, thanked the crowd for believing in the youth of the community, adding that "we don't hide behind masks."
The Rev. Vaughan Foster lamented the anger directed at the community at large, saying "people took a limited amount of information and ran with it. I don't believe Steubenville ... has been represented well by outsiders.''
Foster recalled working as a substitute teacher at the high school on many occasions after moving to Steubenville nearly a decade ago. "You'll never find youths more respectful than you'll find in this community," he said. "This is still a 'yes, sir, no, ma'am' kind of town ... This is still a town where, despite working two or three jobs, mothers and fathers are trying to raise their children with respect."
Foster advised those at the rally to pray, "pray for everybody involved."
"We need to pray for the young lady, we need to pray for the (alleged attackers)," he said. "But our prayers shouldn't stop there."
Dawud Abdullah said those threatening school violence should ask themselves, "What if this was your child? How would you feel?"
"People think our divisions are what separates us," he said. "But our divisions are what bring us together" as a community.
"Don't come here to point fingers," he said. "Come here to unite."
Sacripanti, meanwhile, said they'll continue to show their support for the youth of the community "until our voices are heard and our children are safe."
"It became personal after Tuesday when ... the schools were locked down," she said. "I knew then something had to be done for our children."
Representatives of the Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board, Family Services Association and Jefferson Behavioral Health Systems also addressed the crowd and offered counseling services to those traumatized by the events or in need of mental health, alcohol and drug abuse counseling.
Harris writes for the Herald-Star in Steubenville.