Red flags up, down in one day at MCHS

Friday, October 23, 2009

A program designed to help teens recognize and avoid violence in dating relationships was halted at Marshall County High School after a student, and then a parent, complained earlier this month.

The program, known as the Red Flag Campaign, started on college campuses in Virginia in 2007 as a project of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance. The Red Flag Campaign is now spreading nationwide, thanks to a grant from the Verizon Foundation. In Middle Tennessee, the Domestic Violence Program of Murfreesboro provides it to high schools.

The campaign starts with red flags bearing the Web site address being put up around the school. After a week, the flags are replaced with a series of eight posters. The posters depict "red flags" for dating violence, such as excessive jealousy and emotional abuse, and each bears the slogan, "When you see a red flag, say something."

After the posters have been up for about a week, an educator from the DVP visits the school and leads groups of students in age-appropriate discussions of dating violence and what to do about it.

DVP community educator Amy Lynn Brown never reached that stage at MCHS.

According to guidance counselor Ginger Tepedino, the posters were on display for "less than half a day." A student complained to his or her parents, the parents complained to the principal, and the posters were removed.

"I thought they were on board," said Brown, sadly. "One incident and it's over. I believe this to be a great disservice to the students."

When asked if she had seen the posters before they were put on display, Tepedino, who agreed to the DVP's request to bring the campaign to MCHS, said, "No, none of us did."

In a telephone interview, MCHS principal Jacob Sorrells, said, "If we'd have seen them (the posters) beforehand, we'd have never let them put them up. We never would have OK'd those posters in the first place."

Two of the posters depict dating violence in the context of same-sex relationships. When Sorrells was asked if those caused the problem, he said, "No, it was all of them in general. Everybody doesn't understand what the posters mean."

Brown acknowledged that the campaign might be easier to accept without the same-sex posters, but said, "I think the topic in general makes people uncomfortable." She is trying to contact guidance counselors at Forrest and Cornersville for permission to bring the Red Flag Campaign to their schools.

Interim director of schools Roy Dukes hadn't heard anything about the posters until asked.

"We work hard to make sure we don't have violence in the schools," Dukes said.

School board members were likewise uninformed, but after viewing the posters on the Web site, vice chairman Craig Michael said, "I thought they were great. It looked like a healthy message to me."

Michael did go on to say, "Anything that goes up in our schools, we need to take a good hard look at."

According to Brown, this is third year presenting the program in Rutherford County high schools.

"The kids really benefit," Brown said. "We get lots of positive responses. Our goal is to give them the education they need to halt this problem (dating violence)."

The DVP is just expanding into Marshall and Bedford counties this year. Last week, Brown reported that she had already worked with middle- and high school-age students at the Webb School in Bell Buckle, and was waiting for replies from the Bedford County high schools.