DENAIR, Calif. —As flags flew, cameras rolled and motorcycles revved around him, the unlikely 13-year-old hero in the patriotic tale that swept up this town broke into tears.
Cody Alicea, whose stepfather called in news crews after a Denair Middle School employee told the boy to remove an American flag from his bicycle last week, seemed eager to get away from the crowd and into school Monday morning.
"I'd like to thank you all for your support," he said at a rally organized in the parking lot of Denair Food. He arrived in the lot escorted by a group of motorcyclists, and picked up several hundred more walkers who accompanied him to campus. He collected a hat, a flag and other mementoes from various groups, and U.S. Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., sent a letter.
Before leaving the lot to continue his ride to school, Cody exchanged a hug with Denair Unified School District Superintendent Ed Parraz, his former school principal. Parraz again apologized for the incident and took responsibility.
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"This happened on my watch," he said, pledging to learn from the issue and move the district ahead.
A campus supervisor last week told Cody to put his flag in his backpack over concerns for his safety and after a Cinco de Mayo incident over the Mexican flag.
Cody's stepfather, Robert Kinser, called a TV news crew after he learned what happened.
" (Cody) would have just done as they asked," he said. "But I thought I should call the news after I tried to call the school and see if we could meet in the middle on this."
Though the district reversed its stance — Parraz said he'd be happy if all the students in Denair had flags on their bikes — the issue went viral on the Internet and newscasts.
Several national bloggers picked up on it and encouraged followers to contact the school district, one suggesting that a million flags be sent to Denair. State Sen. Jeff Denham, recently elected to Congress, offered to fly Cody to Washington, D.C., for his swearing-in ceremony in January.
The Denair school board held an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss a potential lawsuit from a rights group that has threatened to sue.
But while pundits and politicians have picked up on the issue, organizers said the local effort was designed to show the country that Denair as a community is not anti-flag, or anti-American.
"We're here today to support all the Codys," said Lisa De Los Santos, who organized Monday's rally and walk to school. "We have to stop intolerance ... racial tension won't go away with a flag in a backpack."
The crowd made its way down Main Street to the school, where it gathered around the flagpole for a hearty Pledge of Allegiance and rendition of the national anthem.
Cody again thanked everyone for coming and tried to make his way into school.
Shawn Alicea said his son didn't expect the matter to grow into a national issue.
"I think it all kind of blew up in his face," he said after giving Cody a hug and sending him into class. "He's such a soft-spoken kid. But he's taken it quite well. He's got a lot of support."