Addressing comments on Maddi Runkles

As Maddi’s story gained huge national traction, everyone seems to have an opinion of her, and consequently of Students for Life of America’s role in promoting her story. We’d like to address three of the most common questions and comments that we have received this week.

Why is SFLA highlighting this tiny Christian school?

This story is not about one school or even just about Maddi. This is a bigger issue than just one principal at one Christian school. Pregnancy discrimination occurs on public and private campuses nationwide. Each year, our Pregnant on Campus Initiative works with 200+ pregnant and parenting students at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels. We find that these students are frequently the victims of discrimination, harassment, and even public shaming. We encounter young women who are told that they can’t graduate in front of their peers. Others are kicked out of dorms, forced to take classes from home, dropped from financial aid, and even expelled. It’s shocking, and we should all be ashamed to have let this persist.

Abortion is a problem in the Christian community:

While Students for Life of America is not a religious organization, we do believe that it’s important to hold both public and private schools accountable for the errors that they have made in response to this issue (i.e. pregnancy and parenting among students). Our president, Kristan Hawkins, wrote in Townhall two years ago about the problems of Christian universities and their treatment of pregnant women and how they often put up roadblocks when it comes to starting and encouraging pro-life groups. In December 2015, close to two dozen students at Christian schools wrote an open letter to their administrators addressing this very problem (with examples of why it needed to be addressed).

This isn’t a new issue, and we need to have a national conversation because, whether intentionally or unintentionally, some schools are promoting a culture where abortion is encouraged and pregnant women are shamed. If Christians can’t stop and see why this is a problem, then they inevitably push more girls away from the church and towards abortion.

Abby Johnson, former Planned Parenthood director, wrote on her Facebook page that she often saw the results of stories like Maddi’s walk through her doors:

This is the reason so many young women ran into our doors at Planned Parenthood. Maddi is going to live the consequences of her sexual activity. She is going to be a teenager in college with a baby. No doubt that will at times be a difficult road. And although we should never celebrate sin, we must recognize that her baby is not a sin. Her child must be celebrated.

On a positive note, there are faith-based schools of higher education who do a great job supporting pregnant and parenting students. We highlighted several in a list here.

Again, this is not simply about one tiny Christian school in Maryland. Our goal is to challenge the Christian and pro-life communities to reevaluate how each school, church, and community responds to unplanned, unwed pregnancy.

Why are people demanding lower standards of discipline and morality?

Neither Students for Life of America nor Maddi’s family are demanding lower standards of morality. No one is contesting that there was a rule, that the rule was broken, and that discipline was the appropriate response as a student of a private, Christian school. Private schools certainly have the right to set codes of conduct and to decide on fair and consistent disciplinary measures.

Maddi and her family willingly chose to go to the administration and address her pregnancy with them. They knew and accepted that discipline was appropriate for the violation of the school pledge. Our concern is the public way in which the school has set her as an example– by arranging a school assembly to announce her pregnancy to all her peers and parents and then by banning her from graduation. We believe that this is excessive and inconsistent with the school’s recent history of disciplinary decisions involving students breaking the same school pledge under difference circumstances.

As stated in Students for Life of America’s May 23rd response to the school:

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… 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 was already unofficially suspended for two days and removed from leadership positions — which was standard and consistent with punishments that other students received for violating the same code under different conditions. This additional public announcement and graduation ban is well in excess and makes an example out of her pregnancy.

Why didn’t SFLA and Maddi’s family keep this private?

The principal of Heritage Academy, Dave Hobbs, has stated on the school website that this is a private issue:

The main reason I have been silent to this point is because in disciplinary situations, each Heritage family deserves confidentiality. The conduct of your children is not everyone’s business*. This perspective would have been the best way to deal with Maddi Runkles’ disciplinary situation. However, her family has chosen to make her behavior a public matter. [*Emphasis added.]

In our view, the school made this a public issue when they arranged a school assembly to announce Maddi’s pregnancy (to which parents of students were also invited). They then continued to make this public in enforcing the punishment of being banned from walking at graduation (which is over 4 months after the initial offense and notably a public event for the entire school community and their families). While the school has insisted on privacy for disciplinary situations, these decisions indicated that they did not respect the confidentiality of Maddi’s situation and that they were willing to make this everyone’s business.

Having made repeated efforts to handle this internally with no further progress, Maddi’s family believes that it is important to bring this issue to light so that no other pregnant student would have to go through what Maddi is going through. As noted in response to the first question, this issue is bigger than Heritage Academy. Some Christian schools are setting a poor example of what it means to forgive and love a pregnant student who has willingly admitted her wrongdoing, repented, and served her punishment. There has to be a better way to exact discipline without shaming and isolating those young women who courageously choose life.

Maddi’s dad, Scott, specifically pointed out that the family isn’t out to ‘get’ Heritage. He was on the board for five years and was most recently the school board president (before stepping down in light of the treatment of his daughter). Maddi has attended Heritage Academy for four years, and her brother is a freshman, although will now be transferring:

The first thing I want everyone to understand is that we are not out to make Heritage or its leadership look bad. I have dedicated more hours to Heritage over the last eight years than many of you could imagine. Heritage is a special place for me and my family despite what Maddi is experiencing.

Heritage is a good school that promotes a lot of the ideals that are important to me as a Christian and that is the reason we entrusted them with the education of our children through their most formidable years.

Hear her story

We encourage readers to take a moment to hear Maddi’s story and to “meet” her. We recommend that you take a moment to watch these interviews to address items that have not been explicitly covered in this post.

 

This post is published in response to concerns regarding our teen pregnancy story involving Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy. Please also read Students for Life of America’s statement in response to the school. For further questions and comments, please email info@studentsforlife.org so that we may clarify any points that were not sufficiently clear.

 

Maddi’s dad: “Discipline is necessary but grace and love should be more prominent”

Maddi’s dad, Scott, took to his daughter’s Facebook page on Sunday night after the New York Times story broke about Maddi’s pregnancy and how her Christian school was banning her from walking at graduation because of it.

There have been many misconceptions, factual errors, and just wrong information out there about the story. Maddi’s father eloquently explains the family’s position and why they decided they needed to go public with the story:

This is Maddi’s father and I’d like to share a few thoughts. I’m not a social media user but I understand that Maddi’s story is creating a lot of buzz (both for and against Maddi) among folks that do use it.

The first thing I want everyone to understand is that we are not out to make Heritage or it’s leadership look bad. I have dedicated more hours to Heritage over the last eight years than many of you could imagine. Heritage is a special place for me and my family despite what Maddi is experiencing.

Heritage is a good school that promotes a lot of the ideals that are important to me as a Christian and that is the reason we entrusted them with the education of our children through their most formidable years.

Second, despite what some may think, Maddi nor her mother and I have ever advocated that she not be disciplined for her actions. My daughter should be held accountable for what she did. Discipline is a necessary piece of the picture but grace and love should be more prominent…that is how restoration takes place.

Maddi’s discipline should have occurred shortly after her confession so we could all focus on the restoration and enjoying her senior year.

Putting her discipline at the end of the year has only resulted in bitterness and hard feelings.

To the detractors, ask yourself how restoration can take place when you put a students punishment at the very end of their high school career. When do you plan to show Maddi the love and grace that is supposed to take place after discipline? Your window of opportunity has unfortunately closed.

There are some who have been very supportive of her during this time and they are the ones that will be endeared to her for a lifetime. Those that have not loved her through this will likely be forgotten soon or at the very least you will be the source of bad memories. There are some who have made it clear that Maddi is not welcome there. Maybe it’s because she is a pregnant girl at a Christian school or maybe it’s because they want to send the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated, but either way these folks have failed to represent Christ effectively in this situation.

I have been on the board at Heritage for five years and have been involved in plenty of discipline issues. Unfortunately, this is the first time that I’m aware of that we have not allowed a senior to walk in their graduation because they broke a rule. I have always fought for a balance of discipline, grace and restoration but I don’t see that in Maddi’s case. Heritage has done a good job in the past about not punishing a student in a way that it detracts from their hard work academically but for whatever reason that seems to be absent here.

The last point I want to make is that this issue isn’t just about Heritage. This issue is much bigger than just this small school in Western Maryland. A number of national media outlets want to talk with us but they would not be interested if this issue were just localized to Heritage. This is a national issue and the decision that Heritage made is emblematic of other Christian schools across the country.

All too often it is easy just to focus on the discipline aspect of girls like Maddi who made the mistake of having premarital sex. Unfortunately, this sort of approach inadvertently contributes to abortion and even worse, suicide.

Maddi briefly considered abortion because of the attitudes from others that she correctly predicted but thankfully she made the right choice in the face of those dire prospects. We are doing all that we can to take Maddi’s story to a national level so that Christian schools are more thoughtful in how Christ would want us to handle these situations…especially with girls like Maddi who have so clearly demonstrated a repentant attitude.

A few last thoughts and I’ll leave you alone.

1) Dave Hobbs and the board at Heritage are good people. I know there are some who want to put all of this on their shoulders but that would not be the Christian way to handle this situation.

In the face of my family begging for grace and love for Maddi I will not be hypocritical in calling for anyone to blame all of this on them. I know that deep down they care for Maddi and our family.

2) Lets not forget about the prospective fathers in these cases. In our situation, the father of the baby is very much involved and I’m proud of him for stepping up to this challenge. My advocacy for grace and love extends to these young men too.

3) I hope that this issue causes all of us to think twice about the roles that discipline, grace and restoration play in our lives. All of them are necessary components and they can be extremely effective when used correctly, but as we can see they are very divisive when not used correctly.

4) Most importantly, please pray for Maddi, our family and the rest of those impacted by all of this that we grow from it and above all, we give God the glory for the blessings that we hope this will yield.

 

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.

Autumn’s response to Maddi: “I support you 100%”

Students for Life – and our many, many supporters who have emailed Heritage Academy in Maryland in support of Maddi Runkles – aren’t Maddi’s only fans. You can send Maddi a message of support if you like through this link.

Teen Autumn Lindsey, whose viral video in response to Teen Vogue’s abortion gift guide went viral earlier this year, adamantly supports Maddi as well. She filmed this awesome video that not only encourages Maddi but rightly raises valid points about the school’s actions towards a pregnant teen who chose life, saying “When Christian schools respond like this, they are promoting abortion.”

The transcript is below:

The New York Times recently released an article about Maddi Runkles, a senior at Heritage Academy in Maryland, who in January found out she was pregnant. She is an excellent student, played on the soccer team, and served as president of the student council. Sadly, when she courageously shared the news of her pregnancy and her choice for life, her school did not respond with love and grace. They punished her. She stood in front of her student body and shared her circumstance and the school board did not show grace to her. Didn’t they know that she could have had an abortion and nobody would have known? Instead she chose life, and publicly shared her struggle. In return she received consequences, not compassion.

 She was told she could not walk in her own graduation, and was removed from her student council position. She wears a coat so the other students aren’t uncomfortable with her growing belly.

When I heard about this, the first thing I thought was, “What about the next girl who isn’t as brave as Maddi? What will happen to her baby? Who is going to willingly stand in front of the school and tell everyone that she is pregnant when result is punishment not praise for protecting the life of her baby?”

When Christian schools respond like this they are promoting abortion. How many countless girls have been too afraid to ask for help and end up aborting their baby? Its no wonder Maddi thought to herself that it might have been easier to just have an abortion. Because as she said,  then people would have just forgiven her instead of having to deal with the visible consequences. Had she done that, the school would also be responsible for that baby’s life ending. We have to change how we treat pregnant students. We have to offer more than an iron fist, or a conduct code. We are called to love. And love supports, forgives, and lifts up. We need to come along side of pregnant teens and ask what we can do to help.

Thankfully Maddi’s parents offered her grace and love. She was able to reach out for help. Their support is priceless.

Maddi, I am so proud of you for choosing life. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. Your courage is a voice to other girls. Not only do I support you, but thousands applaud you because you put your baby’s life above your own convenience. I am sorry for the way you were treated, and I am behind you 100% percent. And I can’t wait to see your sweet baby boy. I am excited for your future together.

Maddi is right when she says that “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” Of all people, pro-life Christians should support, encourage and love pregnant teen girls who decide to keep their babies.

I am so happy to hear Students for Life is supporting you and cheering you on. All life is precious and should be celebrated and protected. You did what was right Maddi, and we thank you for being an example to others who might find themselves in the same situation.  

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-