“I didn’t break the law. I just had sex before marriage, which they see as the worst thing you can possibly do.”
This is Maddi Runkles, an 18-year-old senior at Heritage Academy, which is a private Christian high school in Hagerstown, Maryland.
Runkles was student council president, vice president of Key Club, and on the soccer team. She is finishing senior year with a 4.0 grade point average.
In January, she found out she was pregnant.
The school, which abides by a strict religious code of conduct prohibiting “sexually immoral” behavior, reacted swiftly and harshly. Runkles was removed from all student leadership roles. She was told she’d be kicked out of school and could not be seen on campus, though that was later amended to a two-day suspension.
She was also told she would not be allowed to go to graduation on June 2.
“They say it’s because I was immoral sexually, but there are kids at my school who have been caught drinking at parties, and they were suspended for one day,” Runkles told BuzzFeed News.
“But I didn’t break the law,” she said. “I just had sex before marriage, which they see as the worst thing you can possibly do.”
The father of the baby does not attend the school and is now in college, she said.
In an open letter on the school website, Principal David Hobbs said Runkles was being disciplined “not because she’s pregnant, but because she was immoral.”
“A wise man told me that discipline is not the absence of love, but the application of love,” he wrote. “We love Maddi Runkles. The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her immorality that began this situation.”
BuzzFeed News has contacted the school for further comment.
Runkles is religious and opposes abortion, but said getting pregnant made her question that.
“Since I’ve grown up with a Christian background, I was taught that abortion is wrong, and I do agree with that. I never thought that if I was ever in a situation like this that I would ever consider abortion, but I did,” she said. “And that was all out of fear, because I see how Christians treat people when they make a mistake.”
Instead, she opened up to her parents about it. They were extremely supportive and fought back against the school when she was threatened with expulsion. “My family was nothing but loving,” she said. “There was no anger.”
“Ultimately I don’t think I could go through with an abortion, but all the support from my family and friends really helped me get through all this,” she said.
Unfortunately, not everyone has been so supportive. While classmates initially supported her and thought the school’s treatment of her was unfair, “a lot of people have turned their backs” since Runkles’ story reached national media outlets. She’s been on the receiving end of cruel comments online by both students and parents, she said.
“They didn’t want anything to do with me or my family anymore,” she said.
Runkles’ parents pulled her and her brother out of the school as a result. Her brother, who is in ninth grade, will be changing schools next year.
Her father had served as school board president, but resigned due to how the school treated his daughter.
Despite the treatment she’s been met with, Runkles said she doesn’t actually disagree with the school’s conduct code — she just wishes it had been enforced more fairly, and that punishments wouldn’t be decided on a case-by-case basis.
“I think [the code] is something good to have because it helps you stay accountable,” she said. “But things happen, mistakes happen.”
“I wish they would’ve just punished me immediately, forgiven me, forgotten about it, and then moved on to help me through this,” she said. “Becoming a mom at 18 is not easy, especially with the background that I come from. Instead, they keep looking at me as a discipline issue.”
Runkles’ baby is due in about three months, and she already has a name picked out: Grayson, because of “God’s grace.”
“Grace means getting what you don’t deserve,” she said. “I don’t deserve to have a baby, but through all of this, that’s what I’ve been given — the blessing of the baby.”
And while she will not get to walk at graduation, Runkles said she will still get her diploma, and she wants to take college courses online this fall.
“I’m definitely going to college and getting a degree,” she said.
Runkles said this experience has given her “more of a compassionate heart for teen pregnancy,” and she hopes to one day start an organization that helps pregnant teens just like her.
“You can preach abstinence all you want, but you can’t just stop teens from having sex,” she said. “They’re going to do it no matter what, and you’re never going to be able to stop that.”
“My goal is to make people in the pro-life and Christian community realize that you can be against the killing of babies, but then when the girl chooses to keep her baby and her situation doesn’t meet your standards, you can’t just throw her out,” she said. “That defeats the whole purpose of being pro-life.”