PHOENIX (AP) — Overwhelming public support is outweighing any lingering bitterness for a suburban Phoenix high school student who kept up with classes through cancer treatments but wasn't allowed to walk at graduation.
"Having people tell me that I'm being a voice for them is so much more powerful than these people denying me my request," Stephen Dwyer said.
The 18-year-old on Sunday, just a few days after having to watch his Mesa high school's graduation ceremony from afar, said he never imagined his Facebook post about it would draw national attention. He said he has heard from strangers from all over the world through social media. Many of them are people who are dealing with illness.
Dwyer withdrew from Dobson High School during his junior year to receive a life-saving bone marrow transplant for leukemia. He took online courses until he was able to return in the fall of 2015. He took on an extra early morning class, rejoined the swim team and was elected student body president. He is 2½ credits short of graduating and will finish in December. He argued that students who are on track to graduate shouldn't be excluded from events like the graduation ceremony.
Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Hollands last week lauded Dwyer for being courageous, but she cited district policy.
"Each year, the district has a number of students who due to their personal hardships have not earned the minimum number of credits required to graduate," Hollands said in a written statement. "These students do not participate in a graduation ceremony before successfully earning a diploma."
The district offered Dwyer the chance to sit on the stage — but not in a cap and gown — and give a speech as a student leader. He turned that down, saying that would have made him feel more isolated from the other seniors. He did lead his classmates in a procession on the field at Thursday's ceremony, but he had to go sit in the stands after. However, he doesn't regret going.
"There's definitely going to be part of me for the rest my life where I'm going to be a little bit bitter that I wasn't in cap and gown on the field sitting with my classmates," Dwyer said. "But I think just the emotions that I shared with all my classmates, all my teachers and my family is kind of more powerful."
While graduation is over, he and his parents still hope to get the school district to change its policy.