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, Maryland, 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 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' 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.
BAIDOA, Somalia - Aftin Noor stepped back from the tiny graves he'd been digging and surveyed his work. Exhausted, he turned his palms skyward, squinting into the relentless midday sun, and asked God for an answer.
"I dug three children's graves this morning," said Noor, his voice cracking, his undershirt soaked with sweat. "And I have dug 20 or more this month. Why?"
The immediate answer is cholera. The waterborne disease is sweeping through this city's sprawling refugee camps, which are filled with people driven from their villages by a vicious drought. Spotty, tantalizing rain showers have left fetid puddles, speeding the infection's spread. Like a desperate predator, cholera often picks off the weakest targets: children.
The drought and the looming specter of a famine have brought nearly 160,000 people to Baidoa from the baked countryside. They have come to save themselves from almost certain starvation. But an outbreak of cholera is spreading death through this place of refuge.
The exodus to Baidoa began last November when stores of food began to run out following two years of limited rains. More than 55,000 people arrived in April alone. Whole villages have relocated here.
Somalia is no stranger to famine. Between late 2010 and early 2012, about 260,000 people perished, mostly around Baidoa, about 120 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Then, as now, the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which controls almost all rural southwestern Somalia and is hostile to aid agencies, made it nearly impossible for lifesaving food and water to be delivered anywhere but to the few cities under government control.
Baidoa was al-Shabab territory then. People starved while walking from their homes near here to camps in the distant capital Mogadishu, or in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. Now Baidoa is an island of government control. Aid agencies have established a presence here.
Half of Somalia's population, or roughly 6 million people, are now dependent on humanitarian aid. The United Nations and a constellation of international and local aid agencies and donors believe they are better prepared to address the crisis. Most think 2017 will not mirror 2011, even if the rains fail again.
But the rapid coalescence of squalid camps has complicated the picture. More than 20,000 cases of cholera or related waterborne illnesses have been registered in the Baidoa region since January. Unlike the giant U.N. camps in, say, Jordan or South Sudan, Baidoa's are new and not directly U.N.-administered, with the displaced responsible for building their own shelters and buying their own food, mostly with cash they receive from international aid groups. The camps have sprung up on vacant land owned by locals. In that vacuum, sanitation facilities fell behind more immediate needs - like getting food - and now aid workers are trying to stay ahead of the outbreak's curve.
"We are trying to negotiate with the landowners to allow us to build pit latrines, but some of them are being stubborn," said Peter de Clercq, who oversees the U.N.'s humanitarian mission in Somalia. Cholera, which is endemic in Somalia, spreads quickly in places where people defecate in the open, and the waste ends up in food or drinking water.
"There is still a significant advantage to being in the camps. People can access cholera treatment centers at hospitals. Cholera is easily treatable - it is a matter of catching it before it is too late," said de Clercq. "From what we know, [you are] four-and-half times more likely to die from cholera if you live in an al-Shabab-controlled area."
Around 200 deaths from cholera and related diseases have been recorded in or near Baidoa, but aid workers caution that the toll in al-Shabab-controlled areas might be 10 or more times higher.
Bashir Bille, 40, witnessed cholera's terror in his village. In just a few hours, a body already weakened by hunger could lose all its water, effectively drying out from the inside.
When Noor, Bille's 4-year-old son, developed incessant diarrhea sometime after his family arrived in Baidoa two months ago, the father quickly sent the boy to the Bay Regional Hospital.
Noor was a symbol of hope for Bille's family. During the last famine, in 2011, they had fled with hundreds of thousands of others to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. They returned to their village near the town of Qansax Dheere only when they heard rains had fallen in 2013.
They had survived, amid so much death. Bille's wife, Oorow Madsheikh, gave birth to Noor.
He was admitted to the hospital in Baidoa during a time of growing alarm. The patient ledger at the cholera ward had started off with neat, single-spaced names, but after a bout of rain hit the camps, its pages became crowded, disorganized.
Oral rehydration salts strengthened Noor enough for the hospital to release him after a few days. But a week later, on a Saturday morning in mid-May, he suddenly relapsed. He died in an hour.
Two of his brothers are hospitalized with cholera symptoms.
"I don't know exactly how they got sick," said their ashen-faced father, staring blankly ahead as Aftin Noor and his team of diggers took turns with a shovel and a pick ax, excavating Noor's two-by-one-foot grave. The diggers were from Bille's village - everyone from there was here now. "Children run around. They touch things. They suck their fingers. We can't watch them all the time."
UNICEF says that more than 275,000 children across Somalia are facing severe malnutrition, making them nine times more likely to die of diseases including cholera or measles. In Baidoa, 72 percent of households in the camps have a child younger than 5, according to the United Nations.
The local hospital, which gets support from aid groups, has certainly saved many lives. But some people are not comfortable sending their children there, believing instead in traditional medicine. When Faduma Abdirahman's six grandchildren, entrusted to her by her daughter, fell ill in a camp in Baidoa, she decided to return to her starving village about six miles away rather than have them admitted.
It had taken only a week in the camp for two of the children to develop uncontrollable diarrhea, and the four others to fall prey to a less widespread outbreak of measles.
Abdirahman, 50, can barely speak now, her face frozen in an expression of unimaginable sorrow. "I tried to save them by bringing them back to the village," she whispered, her gaze on the scorched ground outside her home. "I didn't know what else to do. They all died."
The only lasting respite from the drought will come in the form of rain. The season, which usually starts in April, is off to an uneven start. From a plane, one can see parched, sandy stream beds intersect with timeworn footpaths, giving the land the cracked look of dry skin.
Noor's body was brought to its resting place in that cracked land wrapped in a white shroud, which was in turn wrapped in a blue tarp. Aid agencies recommend double-wrapping for cholera victims. Noor was thus deprived of the traditional Islamic pre-burial cleansing, but a group of men still gathered to murmur his last rites.
With a final "God is Great," the men lowered the boy into the earth, covering his body first in wet mud, then flat rocks, then dirt, but it was not enough to fill the grave. Only by skimming some soil off the top of another grave, dug that same morning, did they manage to fill it.