Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus received a standing ovation at the ceremony
Credit: James Wooley

Cleveland kidnapping survivors Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus did not have the chance to graduate with their high school classmates when they should have, but school officials changed that on Wednesday when they gave them honorary diplomas and an afternoon filled with pomp and circumstance.

“Graduation is a milestone,” says Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “The faculty really wanted to give them an experience they really should have been allowed to earn on their own, but because of what happened to them, they didn’t have that opportunity.”

Berry was a 16-year-old student at John Marshall High School in Cleveland when she was abducted in 2003. DeJesus, who was 14 when she was abducted, was attending Wilbur Wright Middle School but would have attended John Marshall High School if she had been able to continue her education.

It has been more than two years since the women, along with Michelle Knight, escaped from their captor Ariel Castro. Since then, the women have worked at completing requirements to earn their diploma. But Gordon says many of the faculty at John Marshall High School wanted to give them the experience of walking across the stage in front of their peers.

“They stood on stage to a standing ovation from the graduates, faculty and all of the parents and families,” he says about Wednesday’s afternoon ceremony. “It was an incredibly moving moment.”

Berry, 29, and DeJesus, 25, were surrounded by friends and family members who wanted to help them experience a milestone that they were denied, including their attorney and friend James Wooley.

“There were lots of tears, lots of happiness,” he says. “We treated it like a fun graduation party.”

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