Joey Hoeffer says he was handing out the tiny white tablets like they were candy.

As it turns out, that's what they were. Certs Concentrated Mints, to be exact.

But officials at Weems Elementary School, in Manassas, said the minuscule mints looked an awful lot like illicit pills -- and parents of another child complained that their son thought that's what they might be.

So Joey, age 9, was suspended from school for one day last week, punished for violating the Manassas public school policy on "look-alike drugs."

"He's not a breath-mint addict or anything like that," said Joey's exasperated father, Wayne Hoeffer, 33, a GTE Corp. employee. "I know the rules are there to stop illegal drugs, and if it had been illegal drugs, I agree he should probably have been expelled. But I think this is going a little too far. It's just ludicrous."

Manassas school officials aren't saying much about the case, citing student confidentiality. But they defended their policy and their actions.

"We don't suspend kids for bringing Certs to school, or handing out Certs to other kids," said Manassas School Superintendent Jim Upperman. "We will, however, suspend kids for bringing Certs or Lifesavers or anything else to school and acting like it may be something else. . . . Without being specific, something else obviously happened here."

The incident began after school Sept. 12, when Joey says he gave two of the little Certs to a 9-year-old friend, whom the school system didn't identify.

"I only told him they were mints," Joey said.

But his friend's father says Joey promised the mints would make his son "jump higher." He and his wife agreed to an interview on condition their names not be used.

The boy's mother said the promise worried them: "I wouldn't have gone through all this if I thought it was only a mint. . . . I don't want any kids offering my kids any drugs. It's as simple as that."

The next Monday, officials said, the boy's mother took the mint to school. Joey says he was interviewed by the Weems principal, Gloria Jackson, and later by a Manassas police officer, who confiscated the candy for analysis.

By the end of the day, Joey had been suspended. He stayed home last Tuesday, and his father took a vacation day to watch him.

The Manassas schools' substance-abuse policy forbids "possession or distribution (or attempted distribution) of drugs, illegal substances, controlled substances, or look-alikes,' which by dosage, unit, appearance or by representation would lead a reasonable person to believe that the substance is a controlled or illegal substance."

Said Principal Jackson: "I don't suspend children for bringing candy to school. But if a child brings something that is harmful or represents it as being harmful, we will deal with that."

Certs Concentrated Mints are not the old-fashioned kind, wrapped in paper and foil and marked with a "C." The tiny mints resemble small, white pills and come in a white plastic case. Joey says they're very popular with his friends. "They're the strongest kind," he said.

Hoeffer says he believes that his son described the mint as candy. But even if that weren't true, Hoeffer questions the wisdom of punishing him. "If someone brings Coast deodorant soap to school and said, This will wake you up,' like on the commercials, would they make a big deal out of that, too?" he asked. CAPTION: Joey Hoeffer, 9, says he never said the mint was anything but candy.