Christian conundrum: Should a pregnant teen be publicly humiliated by her school?

When Maddi Runkles enrolled at Heritage Academy in Hagerstown, Maryland, she and her parents signed an agreement to follow a moral code. When the straight-A student became pregnant earlier this year, the school saw it as rather incontrovertible evidence that Runkles had violated the rules and suspended her — at first for the rest of her senior year, but then on appeal for a short time. However, they also required her to conduct a public confession to the entire school and the parents of the students, and now have refused to allow Runkles to participate in her graduation ceremony.

Is this accountability, or is it something a lot less … Christian? The Washington Post reports that Heritage Academy is sticking by its decision despite an outcry from pro-life groups:

A small Christian school in western Maryland is not backing down from its decision to ban a pregnant senior from walking at graduation next week.

Despite a public outcry and growing pressure from national antiabortion groups to reconsider, Heritage Academy in Hagerstown says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. … The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”

Runkles, 18, is a 4.0 student who has attended the school since 2009. She found out she was pregnant in January and informed the school, where her father was then a board member, in February. Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.

After the family appealed, Heritage said it would allow Runkles to finish the school year with her 14 classmates but she would not be able to walk with the other seniors to receive her diploma at graduation. The family believes that the decision is unfair and that she is being punished more harshly than others who have broken the rules.

Runkles appeared on Fox News to tell her story:

Hobbs told the Post that the violation of the abstinence clause was “a grievous choice,” and that Heritage “believe[s] in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there’s no accountability.” Well, sure, and that is in line with Christian teaching as well, but Heritage has applied multiple forms of punishment already. Runkles lost her student leadership position and got suspended, two understandable and reasonable punishments for violating the student code of conduct. Few would complain about those forms of accountability.

The other forms applied, however, go beyond accountability and into public humiliation. Forcing Runkles to stand in front of the whole school to discuss her sins is just one embroidery short of The Scarlet Letter, and quite arguably abusive. Keeping Runkles from the final and most important ceremonial event of her time at Heritage Academy seems nothing short of vindictive after having piled on punishment after punishment already. This escalating series of actions speaks much more about the leadership of Heritage Academy than it did about the quality of Runkles’ leadership.

Perhaps this hits too close to home for me to be entirely dispassionate about Runkles and her situation, having lived through this situation once. The world is not kind to pregnant teens as it is; they face all sorts of pressure from the secular world to abort their children, and shame when they don’t knuckle under to it. It’s possible for people to support and love those who get pregnant without lauding it as an ideal or ignoring the mistake that led to it. One would expect more from a Christian community than a shunning over an unfortunate mistake. One should expect more from a Christian community than that.

Kristan Hawkins at Students for Life of America also argues that the school has gone far past “accountability”:

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.

I suspect the real answer is more simple. Runkles’ pregnancy embarrasses the school (irrationally), and they don’t want her around.

Let’s hope more rational minds prevail at Heritage, and that Runkles gets a chance to graduate with her classmates as she has earned over the last four years. If not, perhaps the rational minds of the current and prospective Heritage parents should consider a less hostile environment for their children.