Maddi Runkles, an eighteen-year-old senior at Heritage Academy, a private Christian school in the small city of Hagerstown, Maryland, has been barred from walking in her graduation ceremony. Runkles earned a 4.0-grade point average, has served as president of the student council, played on the varsity soccer team, and is pregnant. She will graduate, but will not be allowed to celebrate the pomp and circumstance with her classmates.
Is this, by any stretch, a fair decision by school administrators? The answer is both yes and no, and the decision by Heritage Academy has sparked a debate within Christian communities:
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.’”
Runkles, as well as every student at the school, signed a contract vowing to abstain from premarital sex, immoral behavior, drugs, and alcohol. Clearly, Runkles violated her contract. And Heritage Academy is attempting to stave off others contemplating the same path:
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.”
Runkles confessed her pregnancy and asked for forgiveness during a school assembly. She accepted a two-day suspension with grace and humility. However, her parents felt she should be allowed to attend her graduation ceremony. Her father, Scott Runkles, the former chair of the Heritage Academy board (who did recuse himself from the decision), resigned his position in protest of how his daughter was treated after her confession, claiming most penances meted out was swift, allowing the sinner to leave the transgression in the past, “with Maddi, her punishment was set four months out. It’s ruined her senior year.”
Well, yes, Mr. Runkles, Maddi’s ‘punishment’ is far from over, and it is possible that the Academy is attempting to make sure that underclassmen are aware of consequences to violating Heritage Academy’s code of ethics and conduct.
As Christians, shouldn’t the Academy be lauding her decision to keep her baby? A pro-life constituency, Students for Life of America, have described the punishment as public shaming:
Kristan Hawkins, president of the group, explained: ‘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.’
Is Heritage Academy attempting to unnecessarily shame a young Christian woman who by biblical standards, sinned? Or are they simply struggling to maintain a certain, albeit strict, standard on their Christian campus? A standard that Maddi, and her parents, at one time embraced. Maddie Runkles’ sin is evident. But one wonders if she is the only sinner out of her graduating class and if her fellow seniors were asked, would they admit the error of their ways, and face similar retribution? As previously stated, Maddi Runkles’ case has created a dilemma for the Christian narrative. Maybe all involved revisit John 8:7, and ponder, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
One church made sure she had something of a commencement:
Dressed in her white cap and gown, 18-year-old Maddi Runkles was awarded her diploma Saturday morning, not at the Hagerstown-area Christian school that barred her from participating in the commencement because she is pregnant, but from the Benevola United Methodist Church in Boonsboro.
Some 140 friends and family came to support the teenager during the hour-long graduation ceremony. The event was steeped in religious prayer and music that served to drive home the message that God is the driving force behind everything, including Maddi’s pregnancy.