Maddi Runkles’ story sheds light on a delicate issue: how Christian schools, which advocate abstinence until marriage, treat pregnant students.
BOONSBORO, Md. — Maddi Runkles has never been a disciplinary problem.
She has a 4.0 GPA at Heritage Academy, the small private Christian school she attends; played on the soccer team; and served as president of the student council. But when her fellow seniors don blue caps and gowns at graduation next month, Runkles, 18, will not be among them.
The reason? She is pregnant.
The decision by school officials to bar Runkles from “walking” at graduation — and to remove her from her student council position — would have remained private, but for her family’s decision to seek help from Students for Life. The anti-abortion group took her to a recent rally in Washington, D.C., and argues that she should be lauded, not punished, for her decision to keep her baby.
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“She made the courageous decision to choose life, and she definitely should not be shamed,” said Kristan Hawkins, the Students for Life president, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade the administrator of Heritage Academy to reverse the decision. “There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way.”
David Hobbs, administrator at Heritage Academy, a nondenominational independent school in Hagerstown, Maryland, where students take daily Bible classes, declined to discuss Runkles. In a written statement issued on behalf of the school’s board of directors, he said she would earn a diploma, and called her pregnancy “an internal issue about which much prayer and discussion has taken place.”
Runkles’ story sheds light on a delicate issue: how Christian schools, which advocate abstinence until marriage, treat pregnant students.
“You have these two competing values,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who directs the National Marriage Project, which conducts research on marriage and families. “On the one hand, the school is seeking to maintain some kind of commitment to what has classically been called chastity — or today might be called abstinence. At the same time, there’s an expectation in many Christian circles that we are doing all that we can to honor life.”
Navigating that balance is exceedingly difficult for Christian educators, and schools respond in various ways, said Rick Kempton, chairman of the board of the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents about 3,000 schools in the United States and many others overseas.
“There’s a biblical term that many Christian schools use, and it is the whole idea of grace: What would Jesus do?” Kempton said. Of Runkles, he added: “She’s making the right choice. But you don’t want to create a celebration that makes other young ladies feel like, ‘Well, that seems like a pretty good option.’”
Some schools, he said, might insist pregnant students finish the school year at home. That was one option considered for Runkles. She took a two-day suspension as the Heritage board — led at the time by her father, Scott — wrestled with her fate.
Scott Runkles, a bank vice president, recused himself from decisions involving his daughter, but ultimately he quit the board in anger over how she was treated.
“Typically, when somebody breaks a rule, you punish them at the time they break the rule. That way, the punishment is behind them and they’re moving forward with a clean slate,” he said. “With Maddi, her punishment was set four months out. It’s ruined her senior year.”
In 2009, the National Association of Evangelicals, drawing on figures from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, reported that 80 percent of young evangelicals engaged in premarital sex. A spokeswoman for the evangelical group said its own research, however, suggested that the figure was much lower.
Slightly more than half of women who have abortions — 54 percent — identify as Christians, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that tracks abortion policy.
Among them is Jessica Klick, 40, the athletic director at Heritage Academy, who has been serving as a mentor to Maddi Runkles. Klick had two abortions, one when she was 20 and the second at 21, after becoming pregnant by a man she later married.
Klick, who has two sons with her husband, said she had spoken openly of her past to Heritage Academy students. She said she had felt pushed into terminating her pregnancies by her own strict religious upbringing. She was terrified of what her parents would think. When she called a clinic for an appointment, she gave a phony name.
“I went into an abortion clinic knowing I shouldn’t, and God was the last thing on my mind,” she said.
Runkles, who considers herself “a practicing born-again Christian,” expects to raise her baby, a boy, with the help of her parents, and keeps a framed ultrasound picture on her nightstand at her family’s home in rural Boonsboro, a town of about 3,500 people not far from Antietam, the Civil War battlefield.
She calls the child “a blessing,” but declined to discuss the baby’s father, except to say that they do not plan to marry and that he does not attend Heritage Academy.
Runkles learned that she was pregnant in January, just days before she got an acceptance letter to the college she had hoped to attend: Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal-arts school in Greenville, South Carolina.
Initially, she tried to keep the pregnancy a secret. She also thought fleetingly, she said, of abortion. But after a few days, she confided in her mother, Sharon, who works in a mental-health clinic, and eventually her father, who called an emergency meeting, he said, to inform Hobbs and the board members.
Heritage Academy, which has fewer than 200 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, was founded in 1969, its website says, by parents “who prayed earnestly for a Christian school where children could be taught according to God’s Holy Word.” Its nine-point “statement of faith” declares that “no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of the marriage commitment between a man and a woman.”
Runkles said she knew she would face punishment, “because I did break the school code.” When Hobbs decided to announce Runkles’ pregnancy to the older classmates, she told Hobbs that she would announce it herself — and did so during an emotional session in the school auditorium.
Many students thanked her. She said she felt that she was being treated more harshly than students who have been suspended for, say, underage drinking and lying about it.
“I told on myself,” she said. “I asked for forgiveness. I asked for help.”
She wears a jacket over her school uniform — a polo shirt and khaki skirt — to cover her bulging belly, so as not to make others feel uncomfortable. Her parents are planning their own graduation ceremony for her on June 3, the day after Heritage Academy’s event.
“Some pro-life people are against the killing of unborn babies, but they won’t speak out in support of the girl who chooses to keep her baby,” she said. “Honestly, that makes me feel like maybe the abortion would have been better. Then they would have just forgiven me, rather than deal with this visible consequence.”