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Teen drops fight for Rebel flag

Joel Roberts says he wants the issue to go away if people attribute it to hatred.

Joel Roberts says he never wanted anyone to think his desire to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag to school was based on hate.

But since some people apparently do, Roberts, a junior at Central High School, says he will abide by his principal's decision to not allow the shirts. And, though others have made overtures about helping him challenge the decision in court, Roberts has no desire for a legal battle.

"I didn't want to agree with (the school's decision) at all. But I've got bigger things on my mind," said Roberts, referring to his education. "Once this became what the NAACP member called a hatred thing, there was no use for me being in it."

Roberts, who is 16, was referring to an excerpt from a letter written by Walter Dry, a NAACP member and chairman of the Hernando County Human Rights Coalition, that was included in a St. Petersburg Times story Friday.

"This type of complaint creates more hatred and dislike for the persons involved rather than dealing with what the real issue is and how it affects the school and students," Dry wrote.

Dry said he was not accusing Roberts of being driven by hate. He said he was referring to the divisiveness inherent with the Confederate flag issue. The school was justified in enforcing its dress code, which prohibits clothing that causes a disruption, because of the flag's potential for creating dissension on campus.

Roberts was reprimanded at Central on Sept. 1 for wearing a T-shirt that featured portraits of Confederate generals and several Confederate flags. With his mother, he met with Central officials on Thursday to discuss the issue.

The school stood by its action, saying the flag has been a past source of disruptions on Central's campus, even though no complaints had been levied against Roberts.

After the meeting, Roberts said he was unsure whether he would take his case to court. A Tampa-based pro-Confederate flag group, Preserving Our Heritage, expressed interest in supporting his cause financially.

But after discussing the issue with his family over the weekend, Roberts says he wants to move on with his life. He said he didn't want anyone to "think I'm a racist because I'm not."

DeLana Roberts supports her son's decision, though she left open the possibility that the family might push the case in court once her son is out of school. "I'm not saying it will never happen," she said.

The controversy garnered attention from around the Tampa Bay area. Officials at Central, who could not be reached for comment Monday, said last week they were inundated with calls. The Roberts family had inquiries from radio and television stations around the area and as far away as Tallahassee.

On Monday, WTVT-Ch. 13 devoted 30 minutes to a debate on the issue during its Your Turn segment. Among those in the debate were Dry and Preserving Our Heritage president Marion Lambert. DeLana Roberts answered a couple of questions by phone from her workplace in Hernando County before returning to her job. She said she is eager for life to return to normal.

A decision at Central may have prompted the tempest. But several other school campuses also have Confederate flag bans.

Springstead High's dress code prohibits clothing that could be disruptive or promote prejudice. Assistant principal Tim Urban said Confederate flag apparel would fit that description. But at Springstead, where families with Northern roots are pervasive, Confederate flags aren't much of an issue.

At Hernando High's campus, where much more of the student body is reared in the South, clothing with Confederate flags can still be seen, if infrequently. The school has not had to step in, assistant principal Jane Padgett said, because the flag has been a non-issue.

"We have a larger group of the old families with Southern traditions," Padgett said. "Really I don't think it has created any kind of conflict on our campus."

Though some disagree, Dry, the Human Rights Coalition chairman, said there is nothing inherently wrong with the Confederate flag, only people who use it as a symbol of their racist views. He respects Roberts' interest in the Civil War and Confederate history, adding that the controversy has prompted people to review America's past.

"I think the guy should get an A in history for what he is doing," Dry said.