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.