[THE RECORD] Palisades Park student found guilty in cafeteria fight, but judge gives him a break

A Palisades Park High School student was found guilty Thursday of simple assault after a judge found that he punched another student in the school cafeteria last year.

However, Judge Joseph Rotolo declined to sentence Dong Sung An to probation or to perform community service, saying those punishments were too harsh. Instead, he ordered An to pay a $256 fine, ­ a move that his supporters greeted with applause.

An’s trial assumed all the solemnity of a criminal proceeding, with a prosecutor and two defense attorneys who engaged in heated arguments as the trial went on for several hours into the night in Municipal Court.

Four police officers were on hand to keep order in the courtroom, which was filled to capacity with nearly 150 of An’s supporters, some of whom held up placards that read: “Criminal charge is nonsense!” and “An Dongsung is not a criminal!”

The case renewed a debate about how police decide whether to pursue charges against students resulting from school incidents or allow the schools to handle such incidents through their disciplinary procedures. Schools and police departments throughout the state are required to follow a memorandum of agreement to address school safety issues, including gang activity, bomb threats or incidents involving an “active shooter.”

Critics, however, say the push for school safety is leading to a national trend in which even minor school infractions are being criminalized.

The case generated widespread sympathy for An in the Korean-American community. The Korean Consulate in New York sent a letter to Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo this week, asking him to review whether An was being fairly prosecuted.

An sat by his attorneys and followed the proceedings through a Korean interpreter. The boy he was accused of assaulting last year, when An was 18 and in his junior year at the school, sat on the other side of the courtroom with the prosecutors and his mother.

The boy later took the witness stand and described how he got in line at the school cafeteria, left the line to put down his backpack and returned to his spot in line, angering An who was behind him.

Punches were thrown after some words were exchanged, and the smaller boy testified that he was knocked down and suffered a cut to his lip that required six stitches. The school suspended both students for five days, and An was charged in a criminal complaint with aggravated assault for punching the boy twice in the face. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office later downgraded the charge to simple assault.

“We are in court because [the boy’s] mother sent him to a place where he was supposed to be safe, where he was supposed to be protected from incidents like this,” E. Carter Corriston Jr., the municipal prosecutor, said in his closing remarks.

One of the defense attorneys, Vincent Hughes, took a different tone in his closing statement, saying the dispute between the two students should never have ended up in court.

“Are we going to subject these two boys to this level of ridiculousness?” he said. “It says a lot about this community.”

The judge did not agree with him.

“The defense’s attempt to characterize this as something more than just an assault, a fight between two kids, is misplaced,” Rotolo said.

Andrew Kim, a former president of the Korean American Association of Fort Lee, said many people were upset with the prosecution.

“Is it really necessary for the criminal justice system to punish a student for a school fight?” he said.

An’s attorney, B.J. Kim, said he was glad that the judge did not impose probation, community service and other penalties that the prosecutor had requested, but said he was not happy that An was convicted of simple assault. He said the conviction could affect An’s application for American citizenship in the future.

He also called the prosecution “egregious.”

“We spent six hours prosecuting this ridiculous incident,” he said. “Why it has come to this juncture is beyond me.”

E-mail: markos@northjersey.com