Last night, my hubby and I were discussing the story of a pregnant high school senior who was informed she would not be able to walk in the graduation ceremony with her classmates.
We had only read bits and pieces of the story. Actually, I had only read the headline. After learning from him that she had signed a document agreeing she wouldn’t engage in premarital sex, it was pretty black-and-white for me; she had broken covenant with the Christian school.
She knew the consequences, and while I certainly hoped the school officials and others were treating her with kindness and compassion, she was simply being held to the contract she had agreed upon.
But this morning, I spent some time reading the details of the story. And the black-and-white clarity of last night morphed into a barrage of questions concerning the school’s rationale.
Heritage Academy is a small private Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland, that requires its students to sign a code of conduct agreeing they will avoid things like drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. So certainly there are established consequences for failure to hold up one’s end of the deal, right?
While I’m not proposing extreme rigidity in the school’s disciplinary procedures, I can’t help but question whether a pattern of consistency exists.
Maddi Runkles learned of her pregnancy in January 2017, and while her family and church offered her support, she was fearful about the reaction of school leadership. By her own choice, she tearfully confessed to the entire student body. For breaking the rule of abstaining from premarital sex, she was suspended and removed from her leadership positions, including her role as president of the student council. School administration initially said she would be required to finish her school year from home, but after Runkle’s parents appealed, they conceded to allow her to remain in her classes.
Now several months into her pregnancy, Runkles, a 4.0 student, is banned from walking with her classmates and from publically receiving awards at the graduation ceremony.
Runkles said that she understands punishment for breaking rules, but code of conduct infractions on the part of other students were met with much less severe penalties, such as in-school suspension and grounding from athletic events.
According to Students for Life, the school hasn’t forbidden a student from walking at graduation since the 70s and 80s when three students were punished for failing to uphold their morality standards.
David Hobbs, Heritage Academy principal, made a public statement clarifying the school’s position:
Maddi is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral. …
Heritage is also pleased that she chose to not abort her child. However, her immorality is the original choice she made that began this situation. …
A wise man told me that discipline is not the absence of love, but the application of love. We love Maddi Runkles. The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for immorality that began this situation.
In reply to Mr. Hobb’s statement, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, published a written response. She wrote:
[M]y primary and continued complaint is that the disciplinary actions of the administration have extended far beyond accountability for the broken pledge regarding premarital sex. That accountability was served justly and humbly in Maddi’s confession, her suspension, and her removal from leadership positions. What was initially a punitive and learning moment has transformed into a public lesson (before this even was announced to the media). By banning Maddi from walking at graduation, the administration and board collectively decided on a disciplinary measure of an obviously public nature.
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.
With all the other infractions in the last several decades, was there nothing as serious as that of Runkles’ immoral behavior? Are things like public drunkenness or destruction of property considered less severe? If so, does the school policy reflect varying degrees of severity in disciplinary responses?
And a question I would pose to the school administration is this: “If the parents of a student found their child engaging in sexual activity and notified the school, would the course of discipline have been the same had there been no resulting pregnancy?”
Mr. Hobbs explained that much prayer, careful consideration, and compromise has gone into the disciplinary decisions concerning Runkles, and I don’t doubt that. I can only imagine how difficult those decisions were for an organization desiring to honor God, their students, and their families while maintaining the standard of purity intended when the code of conduct was put in place.
While the school, and most people for that matter, prefers to deal with sin privately and quietly, secretiveness isn’t a possibility when a pregnant belly shows through a graduation gown. If she were to walk at graduation, would those in attendance wrongly assume the school has taken this young lady’s immoral behavior lightly? Would there be a backlash for the school? Would younger girls in attendance assume the school is condoning immoral behavior and be given license to follow suit? Surely questions like these entered into the board’s deliberation.
While each consideration is legitimate, I sincerely hope that the school’s reputation was of least consideration. And I hope that alternatives were considered that would have openly and honestly addressed the moral issue. Would this young lady have been willing to speak humbly to these concerns during the ceremony? She had already established a pattern of humble confession.
I too became pregnant when I was 17, so I can certainly empathize with this precious young lady who exercised an extraordinary amount of courage by making a public confession of her sin. That certainly isn’t my story. I took what I thought was the easy route. In my case, there was no public shame, but rather a dark secret, years of running, and the permanent loss of my child by my own choice. So she is a bit of a hero in my mind.
Confession is good for the soul, and more importantly, it is good for the spirit. In doing so, God is faithful to cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
I hope above all else that Maddi Runkles has experienced this cleansing and that she will lean into the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ and walk with Him daily. No one can forfeit that walk.