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The Red Flag Campaign

A metaphorical red flag serves as an early indicator of impending danger. It can also provide a message for bystanders communicating that someone needs care and support. Capitalizing on this metaphor, The Red Flag Campaign utilizes tangible red flags as a symbol to increase awareness of warning signs for dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

This public awareness campaign piques student interests by placing groups of 500, 4 x 6 inch red flags in high traffic areas (dining halls and student centers) around campus. The Red Flag Campaign seeks transformation among campus culture through associating red flags with a message encouraging students, faculty, staff, and campus community members to “say something” when they notice warning signs in a friend’s relationship.


The Red Flag Campaign was prompted by a gap in resources on how to respond to dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking on college campuses. Kate McCord, Communications Director for Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, describes the importance of the campaign through characterizing the well-being of the students. She elaborates by stating, “Abuse in the context of a relationship can have long lasting implications and these traumatic experiences can impact students for the rest of their lives.” During the beginning stages of the campaign, few initiatives addressed dating violence, healthy relationships, and stalking. Through a partnership with the Verizon Foundation, The Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance initiated an education and awareness campaign in 2006 to address relationship violence throughout the state.


Focus groups elicited responses from college students that shaped the message and branding of the campaign. Members of the campaign sought to analyze the quality of collegiate relationships and differentiate between the key components of healthy relationships and abusive ones. Data from initial focus groups with college students showed that students clearly understood and categorized physical forms of abuse, but students required additional clarity around more insidious forms of violence such as emotional abuse, coercive sexual relationships, and isolating partners from family and friends. As a result, the campaign uses a bystander intervention model, focusing its attention around peers and friends of victims and perpetrators of dating violence in a collegiate environment. The campaign messaging encourages friends to “say something” and educates friends and peers about the “red flags” of dating violence. Thus, the campaign was named The Red Flag Campaign.

In 2006, The Red Flag Campaign introduced its message on ten Virginia campuses as a pilot program. Of the ten campuses, four received roughly 500 flags, along with campaign posters, to place in high traffic areas, while the other six campuses received only posters. Students were then surveyed in order to assess the significance of the impact the flags in combination with the posters made in comparison to campuses with posters only. Out of 844 students surveyed on campuses with flags, almost 430 students indicated they had heard of The Red Flag Campaign. In contrast, roughly 75% of the 282 students surveyed on campuses with only posters had not heard about the campaign. This success prompted the full launch of the campaign in 2007 (complete with posters, flags, and the Campus Planning Guide implementation toolkit) on 18 Virginia campuses and has now grown to over 300 colleges, universities, and military installations in more than 45 states and into Canada.

Goals and Successes

redflag-767x1024.jpgA unique element and goal of The Red Flag Campaign is utilizing the student voice to illustrate what warning signs sound like when spoken by a friend. In efforts to achieve this goal, the campaign implements posters of students representing different demographic populations that vary in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. These posters serve as the face of The Red Flag Campaign and reflect authentic, lived instances of students’ experiences and provide examples of language that college students can use when acting as an effective bystander. McCord describes that through the student voice, the campaign seeks to change social norms on college and university campuses. Friends and peers are encouraged to step in when red flags of an abusive relationship appear and should no longer view abuse in relationships as a private matter. McCord attributes the success of the campaign to the interdependence of student voice. She finds that “having student leadership within the launch, programming, and design implementation of the plan is what makes the campaign resonate so well with college students.” Additionally, McCord states that campuses should “use the bones of [the] campaign offered in the Campus Planning Guide, and ask students to take the campaign and make it their own.”



Leadership of The Red Flag Campaign envisions creating in-person and online training tools for faculty and staff to help support messaging and promote broader, community-level change. McCord relates that “campuses often implement educational programming only within the first weeks of students being on campus; experts in the field are realizing that if we want long-term culture shift, we can’t rely solely on first year students to carry the flag and change the culture themselves.” By training faculty and staff, university leadership will grasp a better understanding of their role within bystander intervention while also connecting the training to Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act and Title IX.

Character Development

Sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking are among higher education’s contemporary ethical issues. The Red Flag Campaign seeks to promote character development of college students by encouraging responsible bystander behavior and promoting a culture of healthy relationships. McCord characterizes the basis of The Red Flag Campaign as learning to be a friend and community member who upholds the community values of safety, accountability, and respect.

Investing in bystander intervention and prevention messaging to promote healthy relationships teaches students how to be good friends and community members. When hallmarks of healthy relationships such as communication and humor, honesty, balance, and equity are promoted and valued among friends, family and the college community, it makes all of our lives better for the long-term.

The Red Flag Campaign promotes character development through educating students about the hallmarks of a healthy relationships and demonstrating how students can support (or confront) peers exhibiting warning signs of being abused (or perpetrating abuse). Most importantly, the Red Flag Campaign encourages introspection and action among students in order to develop the qualities exemplifying good character and healthy relationships such as practicing empathy, respect, and portraying these values among friends and in the larger community.