An 18-year-old student at a local Christian school has been disallowed from participating in her graduation ceremony because she is pregnant.

Maddi Runkles has maintained high marks in her classes, participated in athletics and served as student council president at Heritage Academy, but the school has barred her from “walking” at graduation on June 2, according to a story first published Sunday by The New York Times.

The Times reported that the school’s decision would have remained private had her family not sought help from Students for Life, an anti-abortion group that recently took Runkles to a rally in Washington.

In an emailed statement to Herald-Mail Media, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said the group embraced Runkles’ decision against abortion as “a good thing and should be supported as such, not made into a cruel embarrassment.”

“Not allowing Maddi to walk in her graduation ceremony sends the message that being pregnant in a Christian school is an embarrassment that should be hidden away,” Hawkins said. “If the school doesn’t handle this properly, then this example may be the turning point causing many students to turn away from the pro-life and Christian message – and if we can stop that from happening, then we will.”

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A telephone message seeking comment from Heritage Principal David Hobbs wasn’t returned Monday.

Hobbs declined to discuss Runkles with the Times, but in a written statement 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.”

Since the Times’ report came out, the small school community has “definitely gotten a little bit out of control,” Runkles said Monday night, but she wants her message to extend beyond the school west of Hagerstown.

“What Heritage doesn’t realize is, it’s not all about them. This is a much bigger issue across the country,” she said, referring to pregnant teens who are “shamed” and “hidden away” by Christian schools.

“It’s not like we’re out to get them,” Runkles said. “They just happened to be the ones who got caught.”

Asking for help

Runkles first learned she was pregnant in January and struggled with what to do in the months that followed.

She even considered abortion at one point, knowing the stigma she soon would face.

Runkles’ father, Scott, was serving as president of the Heritage board of directors when his daughter shared the news with him, prompting an emergency meeting to inform the rest of the board and Hobbs.

Rather than let school officials make the announcement about her situation, Runkles chose to do it herself during an emotional assembly with her older classmates.

“I told on myself,” Runkles told the Times. “I asked for forgiveness. I asked for help.”

Scott Runkles, who recused himself from decisions involving his daughter, has since resigned from his position out of anger in the way she was treated.

In most cases, a student is disciplined immediately so all parties can move on, he said.

“What it ended up doing was ruining her senior year, and I don’t think she deserved that,” Scott Runkles said, reiterating the family’s intent to create a national dialogue about the issue rather than put down Heritage.

“Heritage is a great school,” he said. “But unfortunately, what happens when you punish like this, where you hide them away in a closet, you end up as a pro-life school contributing to considerations of an abortion, or, God forbid, even suicide.”

Added Maddi: “You can’t be pro-life, then choose to throw away the girl who does choose life for her baby.”

No clear-cut answers?

The topic illuminates an issue faced by Christian schools, which advocate abstinence until marriage, and how they handle teen pregnancy or other prohibited acts.

Officials at two other Christian schools in Washington County said the answer is not always clear-cut, in part, because codes of conduct don’t prescribe specific punishments and cases are handled individually.

“To me, every situation is different,” said Mathew McIntosh, headmaster at Grace Academy northwest of Hagerstown. “And our philosophy is to work with the parents and the students in question to determine if there’s any extenuating circumstances.”

Faith-based schools typically have a “statement of faith,” or behavioral code, sometimes requiring students to sign at the beginning of each year, that forbids them from things such as premarital sex and the use of drugs or alcohol.

The Rev. D. Stuart Dunnan, headmaster of Saint James School, said the Episcopal institution off College Road outlines its expectations for students, but have “never crossed that bridge” concerning teen pregnancy among its student body.

“It’s such a personal issue, and fortunately, we’ve never really had to address it,” he said.

The issue of discipline for violating school rules boils down to the wishes of each private schools’ administration, sometimes falling on the shoulders of a board of directors or on top-level administrators, such as McIntosh and his leadership team.

McIntosh said the board of directors at Grace serves primarily as an advisory panel rather than a day-to-day regulatory body that makes decisions or drafts policy.

“We don’t see the authoritative approach from the board,” he said, emphasizing the importance of relationships with the families of students. “If I have a problem with a student, we generally take care of it.”

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