Maddi Runkles has never been a disciplinary problem.
She has a 4.0 average 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 early next month, Ms. Runkles, 18, will not be among them.
The reason? She is pregnant.
The decision by school officials to bar Ms. 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, which took her to a recent rally in Washington, argues that she should be lauded, not punished, for her decision to keep her baby.
“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, the administrator at Heritage Academy, a nondenominational independent school in Hagerstown, Md., where students take daily Bible classes, declined to discuss Ms. 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.”
Ms. Runkles’s story sheds light on a delicate issue: how Christian schools, which advocate abstinence until marriage, treat pregnant teenagers.
“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?” Mr. Kempton said. Of Ms. 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 Ms. Runkles. She took a two-day suspension as the Heritage board — led at the time by her father, Scott — wrestled with her fate.
Mr. 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.”
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