SFLA Response to Heritage Academy Statement on Maddi Runkles

Heritage Academy’s principal David Hobbs posted a statement on the school’s website today, which was also delivered to families at the school (a pdf is here). 

The statement below is from Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, which is in response to Mr. Hobbs. Read the entire background of the story in our blog post here.

Being a school administrator in today’s world is no easy task. Our children are faced with challenges and social pressures that many could not have imagined 10 or 20 years ago. I do not envy the task of these leaders who serve to mentor students in both educational and personal pursuits. Balancing care for individual students while also preserving the interests of one’s educational institution is a daunting task, and addressing issues of discipline is a duty that no administrator takes lightly.

I do not doubt that “countless hours in prayer and discussion” were engaged in prior to deciding Maddi’s discipline. I don’t doubt that the administration cares deeply for each of its students. I agree that I do agree that the “conduct of your children is not everyone’s business” and even more so, that discipline is “not the absence of love, but the application of love.” However, the conduct and disciplinary measures of your school does become “everyone’s business” when such actions will likely influence the behaviors of others within the community (i.e. in the model set as to how to treat a pregnant student and the real potential to influence students away from the church and pro-life values) as well as will impose a public example of one student (by banning Maddi, and only Maddi, from walking at graduation).

With any private or even public institution, there are rules to which students must be held accountable. In a Christian school, those rules must respect the school’s faith traditions and ideally lead students towards a deeper understanding of their faith.

Disciplining Maddi is not the issue. Her discipline was decided, communicated, and executed.  For the most part, this was done so with care for the family’s privacy and with fair response to the pledge broken (i.e. “abstaining from sexual immorality and from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs”).

However, my primary and continued complaint is that the disciplinary actions of the administration has 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.

To some observers, walking at graduation may appear to be of little importance. In fact, some students even willingly choose to abstain from graduation events and ceremonies. However, in this situation this honor is notably being given great importance in that the administration and board has decided that it is too great of an honor or too obvious of a platform to present on which to present a pregnant girl with her earned academic achievements.

In the past five years, no other student has been banned from walking at graduation for failing to abstain “from sexual immorality and from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.” From what we’ve learned thus far*, the last known cases of this happening occurred in the 70s and 80s. Currently, Maddi is the only student banned from walking at graduation. In a class of only 15 students, her absence will be obvious and can only be explained in that her immorality is visible (unlike the errs of past and present students).

Maddi has been disciplined and humbled before her school community, her teachers, and her peers. She has already faced months of ridicule and criticism, and she continues to confront the scorn of peers and strangers. Her decisions to publicly share her story came only after her family’s unsuccessful attempts to reason with the administration and the board regarding this final matter. She has repeatedly defended the school, even today posting “I, in no way want to see Heritage Academy fail. I love my school.”

It appears that the school is not satisfied that she has repented of and been held accountable for her initial offense, and that satisfaction of such only comes at a public cost (i.e. not walking at graduation).

To be clear, I called Mr. Hobbs to privately discuss this matter, to explain our position, and to come to a compassionate understanding and resolution. Certainly all involved (including myself) would have preferred a private, internal resolution to this very difficult situation [his letter to me available here]. It did not have to be this way, but here we are. And in this light, all will be judged in how this situation has been handled.

 

*This post has been edited to reflect new information. According to a Heritage Academy student (who attended in the late 70’s and early 80’s), there were 3 students who were banned the right to walk at graduation. We believe that this information does not change the concern that banning visibly pregnant students from graduation is excessive and does not encourage a life-affirming culture within the student body.

This high school senior got pregnant and you won’t believe what her Christian school did

High school senior Maddi Runkles was an excellent student, participated in athletics, was president of the Student Council and an officer in the Key Club at Heritage Academy, a Christian school in Hagerstown, Maryland, about 90 minutes outside of Washington, DC.

Then in January, she found out she was pregnant.

Maddi did consider abortion. After all, she was mere months away from graduating and attending college. Having a child would be hard – not impossible, but certainly challenging.

But Maddi’s parents were very supportive of her, and she chose life for her baby.

Maddi comes from a Christian family and attends a strong Christian church where she has felt nothing but love and support since finding out she was pregnant.

Support at School is Lacking

Her school situation was another story. She had signed a code of conduct, which said she would try to avoid premarital sex, drugs, alcohol – pretty standard for Christian schools. Other students had broken this code and were punished through being suspended for a couple days or being removed from a place of authority like a school club. But the school doesn’t lay out punishments in the handbook, or anywhere – they deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

And what they did to Maddi for her mistake was unnecessarily cruel and set a bad example of what it means to be a pro-life Christian.

The New York Times even wrote about this story and what happened to Maddi at Heritage Academy.

Her principal, Dave Hobbs, was going to inform the entire school that Maddi had broken the rules, but Maddi didn’t want the information to go through a secondhand source. So instead, she voluntarily got up in front of the entire high school and tearfully told them what she did and that she was pregnant.

“I stood there in tears while my dad read half of my prepared statement until I could compose myself and read the rest on my own, admitting my mistake but also saying that I chose life for my child,” said Maddi Runkles, 18. “It was embarrassing, but I wanted my peers and my friends to hear it from me.  The public confession was hard enough, but unfortunately I knew there would be more consequences that I would have to face.”

Maddi was given a two-day suspension and stripped of her leadership positions in the Student Council and Key Club. But the bigger punishment for Maddi is that she will not be allowed to walk in graduation with her classmates on June 2nd.

Punishment without Compassion

Initially, Maddi was not allowed to finish her senior year at school with her classmates but would instead have to finish her classes at home by herself.  Then Maddi and her parents, along with 25 supporters consisting of classmates and other parents, made a formal, in-person appeal to the principal and the board requesting that they allow her to remain in school and graduate with her classmates.

“There were some members of the staff and board that support Maddi’s quest to participate in graduation,” said Scott Runkles, Maddi’s father and former school board president.

He resigned because of how the school treated his daughter.

“This reflects the divergence of opinions that can occur at a Christian school when it comes to pregnant teens.  However, in situations where you have a genuinely repentant student like Maddi, grace and love should always have prominence over discipline.”

Ultimately, it was decided that Maddi would be allowed to finish her classes at school, but as punishment she would not be able to participate in her graduation ceremony in June.

Reaching Out for Help

It was then that she and her family found out about Students for Life of America through Maddi’s involvement in a group called Embrace Grace and reached out for help.

“When we heard about Maddi’s situation, we wanted to not only help her, but also show all of her peers at the school, and in schools across the nation, that choosing not to have an abortion is a good thing and should be supported as such, not made into a cruel embarrassment,” said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. “By treating Maddi without the grace mandated by our Christian faith and handing down a punishment that was inconsistent with how other students were punished they created a terrible example of what being a pro-life Christian is really supposed to embody.”

“Maddi has been receiving an incredible amount of love and support from her family, her friends and her church, and her school should be no exception.  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. 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.”

SFLA reached out to the principal at the school to persuade him to change his mind and let Maddi walk at her graduation, but he did not back down.

The message sent to Maddi’s peers is clear: break the rules and you will be embarrassed and severely punished, even if you make the right decision in the end. There is no room for grace or compassion.

Doesn’t that break your heart?

Christians & Abortion

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a majority of women who have abortions identify with a Christian denomination. Another study revealed that more than 40% of women who had an abortion reported that they were actively attending a church, and of those, 76% said that their church had no influence on their decision to abort.

Christians should be the bedrock of the pro-life movement.  If this is true, then why are so many women who identify as Christian aborting their babies?  Who are the examples of what it means to be a Christian and be pro-life?  Where are the examples of pro-life Christian schools that fully embrace these teens after they make pro-life decisions?

What did Maddi’s peers think when she got up there in front of them to confess her sin? What if a pregnant, scared girl was sitting in that audience and saw the embarrassment that she had to endure along with the punishment she is receiving – would that girl make an appointment with the nearest Planned Parenthood to have an abortion? More than likely.

When these teens graduate and are confronted with situations that test their faith in college, they will remember what happened at Heritage Academy and how their Christian school treated Maddi. They will remember that it wasn’t with grace and compassion, that it wasn’t with love. That’s not a great legacy to leave with graduating students.

The school could have used Maddi’s story as an example of how to do the right thing and support a pregnant student. But they didn’t. The proper legacy to leave is a picture of a Christian school that chose to do the right thing by supporting a young girl who acknowledged her mistake but also chose to do the right thing in the end.

Helping Maddi

Students for Life of America is calling on supporters to do three things:

  • Email Dave Hobbs (dhobbs@heritage-academy.net), the principal at Heritage Academy, and ask him to please reconsider the school’s decision not to allow Maddi to walk with her peers at graduation.
  • Send a message of support to Maddi. She spoke at our #Sockit2PP rally last month and brought everyone to tears with her story. Click HERE to send Maddi a message of support.
  • SFLA is throwing Maddi a graduation reception. If you’d like to donate, we are going to present Maddi with a scholarship and baby gifts.

Pregnant on Campus

Because of students like Maddi, Students for Life created a successful program called the Pregnant on Campus Intiative (PonC). It seeks to create a life-affirming culture on college campuses through lobbying the school for diaper decks, lactation rooms, childcare and housing options, and connect with local pregnancy resource centers. Pro-life students got on board with PonC almost immediately because it gave them a way to do something tangible to help their peers in stressful situations and who are lacking support. We are there for these students in crisis, and we ask you to join us.

UPDATE, 5/23: This story is gaining huge national attention-