Junior High?

Once upon a time, eighth graders bought pot from classmates and smoked it right on school grounds, with barely a glance over their shoulders. Today, thanks to hyper-conservative "zero tolerance" rules, kids don't dare carry a couple of aspirins to school for fear of expulsion. Just ask 13-year-old Hayley Hoffman, the Greenfield Junior High School student who, along with another girl, was suspended late last month for sucking on a helium balloon while decorating for a school dance.

Gilbert Unified School District officials didn't care that the only thing that got high was Hayley's voice. They were so horrified by her blatant "drug" abuse, they locked her in the principal's office (perhaps to shield her fellow students from the evils of Hayley's helium-induced Donald Duck voice) while they phoned her father, Mark Hoffman, to tell him that although Hayley had been suspended, she wasn't allowed to leave campus because she had to have her photograph taken with the soccer team later that day.

Fortunately for Minnie Mouse fans and Mylar balloon advocates, Hayley's dad -- who has himself sucked down a pinch or two of helium in the past -- came to the rescue, notifying the media about the absurdity of the charges against his daughter, an A student who's known to her friends these days as "the Helium girl." After Hayley's story began turning up on local newscasts, her sentence was reduced to one day of out-of-school suspension, and Greenfield principal Jill Bowers and other GUSD officials have spent the past couple of weeks backpedaling like mad. Meanwhile Hayley, who's gearing up for an appearance on The Larry Elder Show, is tired of being the poster child for zero tolerance. She's ready to get on with her life.

New Times: You don't look like a helium addict. What happened?

Hayley Hoffman: Well, we were decorating for the school dance on Friday. And me and my friend Brittany, we went into the Balloon Room and we started blowing up balloons. And we just decided to inhale helium. And we did it, and it was no big deal.

NT: Wait. You have a place called the Balloon Room at your school?

Hayley Hoffman: Yeah. It's like a decorating room. It has balloons. Anyway, we did it and we didn't think we would get in trouble. And we got called up on Monday and it was just, they started to hassle us.

NT: But you were volunteering for the school -- decorating for them for free. It's not like you dragged some helium to school with you and were partying with it.

Hayley Hoffman: No. And [decorating for the dance] was actually a required thing for yearbook class. We didn't really have a choice.

NT: And the school provided the helium. I'm going to guess that none of the school officials are in trouble.

Hayley Hoffman: I don't know. I don't think anything has happened to them over this.

Mark Hoffman: When I got called at work and they told me my daughter was suspended, I went and talked to the assistant principal. She told me she was suspended for inhaling helium, and I'm thinking, "There's got to be more to this story." If helium is such a dangerous substance, why do they even have it on campus to begin with? And if it's so dangerous, why wasn't there adult supervision when they were filling these balloons up?

NT: I'll bet you didn't get to ask any of those questions, Hayley.

Hayley Hoffman: Yeah, I was just hauled into the office and they told me I was suspended, but then I had to stay in the office all day. I'm on the soccer team? And we were having pictures taken after school? So they just decided to keep me there and have an in-school suspension.

NT: They locked you up! So this isn't some new fad among 13-year-olds -- sucking on cartridges of helium?

Mark Hoffman: I had to ask them: What if a kid brought a helium balloon to school? Would the kid get suspended?

Hayley Hoffman: They actually sell helium balloons at our school!

NT: It's like the playground pusher is Bubbles the Clown.

Hayley Hoffman: Yeah. And what do you think people are going to do with [helium balloons]? The kids that buy them.

Mark Hoffman: Well, they're making clowns into drug dealers because clowns give helium balloons to kids.

NT: Right. You can't give helium to kids and expect them not to suck some of it down.

Hayley Hoffman: Actually, this week is Spirit Week at our school. And today was supposed to be Balloon Day, but they changed it because of what happened. If this hadn't happened, they probably would have done Balloon Day anyways.

NT: I'm afraid to ask. What did they change Balloon Day to?

Hayley Hoffman: (Rolling eyes) Flip-flop Day. And I wear flip-flops anyways. So what a rip-off.

NT: I read on the Internet that helium gas can cause fatigue, dizziness, coma and even death, if abused. What do you suppose "abused" means? A tank next to your bed?

Hayley Hoffman: I think it means if you take too much? Because with us, it was like, it wasn't to the point where we started getting dizzy or lightheaded or anything. So it wasn't any big deal.

NT: You can also die from inhaling water. Do you have drinking fountains at your school?

Hayley Hoffman: Yeah.

NT: Well, you'd better be careful. Anyway, you were suspended for five days, but that was reduced to one day of out-of-school suspension after principal Jill Bowers re-examined the circumstances. Why?

Hayley Hoffman: I think that's because my dad brought it to themedia. The school changed their mind right after a newspaper called them. They changed it to a one-daysuspension,which Ialready served, and then they just totally took it off my record.

NT: So this won't go on your permanent record?

Mark Hoffman: The principal assured me it wouldn't. But I still have a problem with them, because you can't appeal a suspension if it's less than ten days.

NT: What do you have to do to get a ten-day suspension? Drop acid?

Mark Hoffman: I know. I wanted to ask the principal if she would give Hayley a ten-day suspension just so I could have an appeal. The frustrating part was I went through all the channels I was supposed to -- I talked to the principal, and I tried to call the superintendent, but he was in meetings all day. Meanwhile, my daughter is still in detention. The secretary referred me to a hearing officer, who talked to the principal and then told me that the principal's decision stands and, by Arizona state law, it can't be changed. And oh by the way, there's no appeal process, so there's not much I can do. So I contacted the media.

NT: Good man!

Mark Hoffman: [The news media] contacted the school to confirm the story, and by 5:30 I got a call from the principal that, after further discussion with other principals, they decided to change the suspension to one day served.

NT: Gilbert Unified School District has a "zero tolerance policy" on inhalants. What does that mean?

Hayley Hoffman: I think it's just, like, anything that can be inhaled in your body?

Mark Hoffman: It means that if you bring any kind of drug to school, you will be suspended immediately.

NT: Does that include asthma inhalers?

Mark Hoffman: It includes Tylenol!

Hayley Hoffman: Yeah, but that's only if you don't leave it at the nurse's office. You have to leave any medicine at the nurse's.

NT: You guys are making that up.

Hayley Hoffman: No. If you need your inhaler, you have to go the nurse and get it.

NT: I hope she's conveniently located. If you got suspended for five days, what's happening to kids who are smoking dope or dropping Quaaludes at recess?

Mark Hoffman: Actually, the principal told me that this should have been a ten-day suspension and I should be grateful she only made it a five-day. She was acting like Hayley got off easy with a five-day suspension.

NT: Hayley, what -- besides not inhaling helium -- do you plan to do when you grow up?

Hayley Hoffman: I don't know. I haven't decided yet. I'm like the Helium Girl now at school. Everyone, like, always comes up to me and talks about it and stuff. They just, like, ask me what happened and stuff. It's slowing down, though. Not as many people are into it. I'm ready for something else. I'm ready to move on with my life.

NT: I read Sannea Becker's editorial about you in the Tribune. Who the hell is Sannea Becker?

Mark Hoffman: I don't know, but that was the only negative editorial about Hayley that we've seen. I wrote a Letter to the Editor about that. I hope it runs.

Hayley Hoffman: Oh, is that the mean one?

NT: She was ragging on you about getting good grades and saying it didn't matter. The nerve!

Mark Hoffman: To me, it doesn't matter if she was a C student with no extracurricular activity. I don't believe that kind of student -- an average student who maybe doesn't play soccer or isn't on yearbook staff -- deserves that kind of treatment, either.

NT: So you're on yearbook staff. So was I. Careful! You could end up a wiseacre journalist.

Hayley Hoffman: Okay. I will. I'll be careful.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela