A small Christian school in western Maryland is not backing down from its decision to ban a pregnant senior from walking at graduation next week.
Despite a public outcry and growing pressure from national antiabortion groups to reconsider, Heritage Academy in Hagerstown says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. ... The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”
Runkles, 18, is a 4.0 student who has attended the school since 2009. She found out she was pregnant in January and informed the school, where her father was then a board member, in February. Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.
After the family appealed, Heritage said it would allow Runkles to finish the school year with her 14 classmates but she would not be able to walk with the other seniors to receive her diploma at graduation. The family believes that the decision is unfair and that she is being punished more harshly than others who have broken the rules.
“It’s because I’m pregnant and you can see the results of my mistake,” Runkles said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “There have been kids who have broken the student code and they could have hurt people or even gone to jail and they only received an in-school suspension and they’re allowed to walk this year. The school is worried about its reputation, but I think they’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to set an example for the pro-life community and Christian schools about how to treat guys and girls like me.”
The baby’s father is out of high school and did not attend Heritage.
To Hobbs, a long-time educator completing his first year as the school’s principal, the decision to not allow Runkles to take part in graduation resulted from her actions. He thinks she needs to be held responsible and believes the penalty will be instructive to other students.
“The breach of a standard of abstinence is a grievous choice,” he said in an interview. “Maddi made a grievous choice. We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there’s no accountability.”
Hobbs said Heritage, which opened in 1969 and has 175 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, emphasizes abstinence and tells students to “maintain their purity until their wedding night.”
“We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside of marriage is one of the things that is beautiful about marriage,” he said.
But while the school reaffirmed its decision, antiabortion groups have rallied to support Runkles. They argue that by singling out a pregnant student, the school is making it more likely that young women will choose abortion rather than suffer embarrassment and punishment.
“It’s a bad decision,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. “I was horrified when I learned that they wouldn’t let her walk at graduation. Usually when a woman is facing an unwanted pregnancy, especially a young woman, there is a sense of shame that comes into play and can have an impact on her decision and often does.”
Mancini said that while she respects the school’s code of conduct she worries about what the next pregnant student will do.
“What she needs is support, and what the school is doing is really the opposite of that,” she said. “It’s the antithesis of what it means to be Christian.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, also criticized the school. “By banning her and her alone, the administration and board collectively decided to make a public example of one student and has either intentionally or unintentionally communicated to the school community that pregnancy (not simply premarital sex) is a shame and should not be observed within our school community,” she said in a statement.
Runkles said her situation has drawn so much media attention in the past week, with her story being told by the New York Times, CBS and Fox, that some friends and classmates who once supported her now think she is just seeking publicity. The backlash has been severe, especially on social media, where she says strangers, acquaintances and parents of other students have attacked her.
“It has really gotten out of control,” Runkles said. “Moms of students have tagged me and said nasty things about me. I’ve had students start group messages to start nasty rumors. People saying I’m just attention-seeking and spoiled.”
The blowback led Runkles’s parents to pull Maddi and her 9th-grade brother out of the school for the remainder of the year. Her father, Scott Runkles, has resigned from the school’s board and her brother will transfer to another Christian school in the fall.
While she feels that her experience at Heritage has been ruined, Runkles says she is grateful for the support from her family and the Baptist church she belongs to in Frederick. She has also become involved in antiabortion activism, taking part in rallies and speaking out against federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“I chose life and sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it, but then it’s been kind of a blessing because I have a big platform to help other people,” she said.
Runkles, who has been accepted to Bob Jones University, a Christian school in South Carolina, doesn’t believe Heritage will change its mind about letting her walk at graduation June 2, but she said that if it does, she will take part.
“I would love to attend because my best friends will be there and I want to share that with them,” she said. “Some people are upset because they think I’m out to get the school, but I’m not. I just want them to do the right thing.”
Still, Runkles isn’t holding her breath waiting for the school to reconsider. And she has other things on her mind. Her baby boy is due Sept. 4.