Maryland high school student Maddi Runkles, 18, is a senior with a 4.0 GPA. She’s also expecting a baby boy in September. Runkles’ story is going viral because her small Christian high school won’t let the pregnant student walk at graduation. The official reason, according to the school’s administration, is simple: “Immorality.” Bustle reached out to Heritage Academy for comment; the school referred us back to previous statements made by administrator David Hobbs. His official statement can be found here.
Runkles has attended Heritage Academy, a Christian school with 175 students located in Hagerstown, Maryland, since 2009. According to The New York Times, the school has a nine-point “statement of faith” barring “intimate sexual activity ... engaged in outside of the marriage commitment between a man and a woman.”
Runkles appears to have been a model student: In addition to her good grades, she was president of the student council, and was involved in other school organizations and sports teams. That all changed when she informed the school that she was pregnant in February. The baby’s father is not a high school student, and Runkles does not have plans to marry him.
At first, the administration suspended her and required that she finish her last semester of high school from home. She was also removed from her posts on student council and other school organizations.
After her family appealed the decision, Runkles was allowed to return to school following a brief suspension, but she was informed that she would not be allowed to attend her graduation ceremony. In protest, Runkles' father has resigned from his seat on the Heritage Academy board, and her parents have removed her and her brother from the school.
Heritage Academy principal David Hobbs has stood by the administration’s decision, citing what he describes as Runkles’ “immorality” again and again. “Maddi is being disciplined, not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral,” he wrote in an open letter. He clarified that she will receive her diploma, though she will not attend graduation. “Heritage is also pleased that she has chosen to not abort her son. However, her immorality is the original choice she made that began this situation,” he continued.
“We love Maddi Runkles,” Hobbs wrote. “The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her immorality that began this situation.” He also told The Washington Post, “Maddi made a grievous choice. We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there’s no accountability.”
As The New York Times and Slate have pointed out, Runkles’ story reveals a tension at the heart of a religious and socially conservative community that simultaneously regards sex out of wedlock as shameful and is staunchly pro-life. While the conservative Heritage Academy is punishing Runkles for the “immorality” of engaging in pre-marital sex, pro-life organizations have argued that, by shaming her for having sex, the school is pushing her toward abortion. The Runkles have sought support from the pro-life organization Students for Life. “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,” Maddi Runkles told The New York Times. “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.”
Runkles told BuzzFeed News that she doesn’t feel her school approached her violation of the code of conduct fairly. “They say it’s because I was immoral sexually, but there are kids at my school who have been caught drinking at parties, and they were suspended for one day," she said. “But I didn’t break the law. I just had sex before marriage, which they see as the worst thing you can possibly do.”
Runkles hopes that she can use her experience to help other teen mothers. “My goal is to make people in the pro-life and Christian community realize that you can be against the killing of babies, but then when the girl chooses to keep her baby and her situation doesn’t meet your standards, you can’t just throw her out,” she told BuzzFeed News. “That defeats the whole purpose of being pro-life.”
Runkles said that she still plans to pursue a college degree next fall. Though she’ll be missing her high school’s graduation ceremony next week, her family plans to hold one for her in June.