Stephen Dwyer was a junior at Dobson High School in Mesa when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He fought hard to graduate with classmates, but came up 21/2 credits short. He beat leukemia and has graduated. Tom Tingle/

Nearly a year after Mesa Public Schools denied a leukemia survivor’s request to walk with his graduating class because he was 2.5 credits short, the district has changed its policy to accommodate sick students.

Stephen Dwyer had missed classes because he went through radiation, chemotherapy, and eight months of isolation for a bone-marrow transplant that saved his life. He took extra classes his senior year and earned a 4.2 GPA his first semester back, but district policy had no flexibility for students like him.

District officials denied senior Dwyer’s request to wear a cap and gown and sit with students at their graduation, citing district policy. Instead, he lead the graduating class to their seats and then left to watch the ceremony from the stands.

Last week, the MPS governing board voted to change that policy, allowing students experiencing “serious hardships” the chance to participate in commencement even if they aren’t graduating. 

“Students who have not successfully completed all requirements for graduation due to a serious hardship beyond their control may submit a request to the principal to participate in a commencement ceremony.” The principal will then forward the request with his or her recommendation to the superintendent, who will have final say.

“We didn’t do it for Stephen; we did it for other kids that don’t really have an advocate,” Dwyer’s father, Rick Dwyer, said Friday. “Most importantly, it’s going to be effective for this graduation class.”


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Changing the rules for others


Dobson High teacher disagrees with decision to not allow Stephen Dwyer to particpate in Dobson High graduation. Dwyer had to miss his junior year while undergoing treatment for leukemia and was several credits short. David Wallace/
David Wallace/

The district and Stephen Dwyer’s school, Dobson High School in Mesa, received national criticism last spring after the incident and Dwyer’s post about it went viral. 

A couple weeks later, the governing board directed the superintendent to form a task force of community members, district staff and high school administrators to evaluate graduation policies. 

Rick Dwyer served on the task force, meeting with principals and officials for hours on multiple occasions over the course of a few months. 

“They wanted to look at the situation, and not just Stephen’s situation, but others,” he said. “It was an opportunity to broaden it to others.”

He said it “was not just a bureaucratic exercise,” and that in the end he was “pleasantly surprised” to see the board adopt the policies he’d been advocating for from the start. 

This year, Mesa high school graduations are May 25. 

“The new policy is the outcome of a task force of dedicated students, parents, advisors and administrators that carefully studied the issue and provided a recommendation to the Governing Board,” said Pete Lesar, associate superintendent and task force lead. “We believe it successfully addresses the best interests of our students and our schools.”


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Looking forward – and back 

Although it’s been a year, Rick Dwyer said the memories of his son’s non-graduation still hurt the family. 

“For us, as a family, it’s still painful. We’re happy going forward,” he said. “But for us, it’s a gap that is never gonna get really filled.”

He said his wife, Trishelle Dwyer, is still upset with how the district treated their son. 

“I know she would still like someone to say, ‘Hey, we’re sorry this happened.’ I think (being asked to join the) task force is an unofficial ‘We’re sorry,’ ” he said. “She’s maybe not going to have closure on this until someone will say, ‘We’re sorry, this could have been avoided.’ ” 

Instead, the Dwyers are looking forward to sending Stephen off to college in August. 

He graduated cancer-free in December and earned a scholarship to Lake Forest College, a private liberal-arts college 30 miles north of Chicago. There, he hopes to swim competitively and major in business.

“He’s back to the dream he had starting when he was a sophomore,” Rick said. “For us, that’s amazing, and I think that’s what all of us are really getting behind is when he moves to that next page.”  


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