Christian Private School Bars Pregnant Student From Graduation

May 26, 2017 at 9:02 a.m. ET
Image: Suphat Bhandharangsri Photography/Moment/Getty Images

I graduated from a private Christian high school in the late '80s. My classmate was pregnant and made the incredibly brave choice to carry the baby to term and give him up for option. Our guidance counselor was a passionate advocate for our classmate, and the school administration listened to her message of inclusion. The nuns who ran our school didn't always have a great track record for compassionate choices, but we were all thrilled that they came together to support our pregnant friend during her senior year. She celebrated graduation with all of us, and I often think of her and the courage it took in the late '80s to finish out her time at a pro-life, anti-sex school carrying a baby who would not be hers.

So when I heard that a Maryland teen is being barred from participating in her high school graduation because she's pregnant, I did a double-take. This is 2017?

The New York Times broke the story of Maddi Runkles, who attends Heritage Academy, a small private Christian School near Boonsboro, Maryland. The academy is refusing to let her walk with the rest of her graduation class with the disappointing excuse that Runkles violated the school's "statements of faith" — a code students are required to sign at the beginning of each school year. The statement in question? "No intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of the marriage commitment between a man and a woman."

Uh, OK. A forced signature does not a blood promise make. And mistakes happen, especially in the lives of adolescents.

More: The surprising list of things that can keep your teen from getting pregnant — or getting someone pregnant

This could be a beautiful moment — not just for Runkles, but for the school — to look beyond its archaic codes and celebrate this young woman for making a very difficult, very brave choice that is very much adhering to the school's anti-abortion stance. How "pro-life" can you be if you're ostracizing a young woman who is trying to do the right thing for her, the baby and for her school?

"It’s like a small school and it is such a big deal and I am the only one that is not going to be there that night to walk to the stage," Runkles told local news reporters.

She said to the Times that she had no doubt she would be punished severely by revealing her pregnancy to her classmates. She was right. The academy forced Runkles to resign from her leadership positions at school and slammed her with a two-day suspension while the Heritage Academy board — LED BY HER FATHER — contemplated additional punishment to shame her.

More: Why I tell teen moms "congratulations" on their pregnancies

The final decision? Runkles, who has a 4.0 GPA, was a model student and served as student council president, would be allowed to get her diploma, but would not be allowed to walk the stage at the graduation ceremony.

Here's the only thing I like about this story: Runkles' dad resigned from the board in defense of his daughter, furious at the choice to shame her at graduation.

"Typically, when somebody breaks a rule, you punish them at the time they break the rule. That way, the punishment is behind them and they’re moving forward with a clean slate," Runkles’ father said on the record to the Times. "With Maddi, her punishment was set four months out. It’s ruined her senior year."

Runkles and her family decided to get help from the anti-abortion group Students for Life. The president of that group, Kristan Hawkins, begged the Heritage Academy administrator, David Hobbs, to lift the humiliating punishment.

Hobbs declined.

And there we are: a school preaching anti-abortion, but punishing a young woman who chooses with great grace and courage to continue her pregnancy. There's nothing "pro-life" about this stance, only cruelty and hypocrisy.

"[Runkles] made the courageous decision to choose life, and she definitely should not be shamed," Hawkins said to the Times. "There has got to be a way to treat a young woman who becomes pregnant in a graceful and loving way."

Yes. It's called inclusion. It's called a teachable opportunity in line with the school's thinking on anti-abortion.

Hobbs refused to discuss Runkles' situation with the press. Instead he sent a statement saying Runkles' pregnancy was "an internal issue about which much prayer and discussion has taken place."

Looks like all that prayer led to a most un-Christian decision. Go figure.

As for Runkles? She and her parents will be holding a private ceremony the day after the school's scheduled graduation — and her classmates are invited to celebrate with her. I hope the whole school comes out to support this young woman and demonstrate to the academy what real Christian love and compassion looks like.

Runkles says it best: "You can’t be pro-life, but then refuse to support the girl that keeps her baby." Boom. I couldn't agree more.