03/07/2011 at 01:00 AM EST
Dylan Hemenway was getting dressed for gym class at West Boylston Middle/High School when a group of boys shoved him inside a locker and slammed the door. He was rescued when a teacher heard him calling for help. "I couldn't defend myself," Dylan, now 13, says of the incident two years ago. "There were four of them, and I am really small."
School officials in the bucolic town of West Boylston, Mass.-just 41 miles from where 15-year-old Phoebe Prince ended her life last year after enduring relentless bullying-quickly intervened. As part of the school's ongoing zero-tolerance approach to bullying, officials paired Dylan with senior Matt Gray, 18, who took Dylan on frequent walks and encouraged the younger boy to pour out his troubles. Matt urged him to ignore the taunts and to seek help from teachers rather than lash out. "It really calmed me," says Dylan.
While Prince's death was a wake-up call to schools around the nation, West Boylston began its anti-bullying program a decade ago, and it has offered a ray of hope for several schools in Massachusetts. Looking for guidance, representatives from Prince's South Hadley High School visited West Boylston shortly after her death. West Boylston sets a demanding example, swiftly reviewing every complaint and always calling parents and-if necessary-the police. "We want kids to know the school cares," says associate principal Chris LaBreck.
Nowhere is that concern more evident than at the semiannual Day for Change, when students and teachers alike gather in the gym for an empathy-building exercise, responding to questions such as "Have you lost a parent?" or "Have you been bullied?" Says principal Larry Murphy: "Many people have tears running down their faces." The message has sunk in for Dylan, now an eighth grader. After recently witnessing another boy being taunted, Dylan informed his counselor. "It felt like the same situation I'd been in," he says. Adds Matt, proudly: "I always tell him, 'Don't let it get to you. Just step up and tell somebody about it.'"