NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — The mystery of the 29-year-old woman who pretended to be a teenager to enroll in a New Jersey high school seemed to capture the imagination of the country, drawing millions of viewers to news articles, TikTok and YouTube.
Parents questioned the seeming ease with which she had tricked school officials and been able to wander the hallways, attend classes and meet with guidance counselors for four days in January. Students at the school, New Brunswick High, said they feared that the woman, Hyejeong Shin, had malicious, possibly criminal, intentions after she tried to set up meetings with them at a location outside of school.
But on Monday, two lawyers hired by her family laid out a far less sinister explanation for the odd behavior: Recently divorced and far away from her family in South Korea, she was trying to recreate the sense of safety she had felt as a student at a Massachusetts boarding school.
“It’s very bizarre,” Darren M. Gelber, one of the lawyers, said in an interview. “And it may be difficult for people to understand.”
“There are personal issues that she needs to resolve,” added Henry Hong Jung, another lawyer. “She’s been away from home a long time.”
On Monday, at her second court appearance, she entered a not guilty plea to charges that a prosecutor said carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Her lawyers told the judge that she intended to apply to a program that diverts first-time offenders from the criminal justice system and enables them to wipe their record clean after a successful period of probation.
Ms. Shin, who is not a U.S. citizen but is in the country legally, hopes to return home to South Korea after the case concludes, her lawyers said.
“I don’t have anything else to say for now,” Ms. Shin, dressed in a blazer and bluejeans, her dark hair cinched in a pony tail, said after court.
Within weeks of Ms. Shin’s Jan. 24 arrest on charges that she provided school officials with documents that falsified her age, the police in New Brunswick reassured parents that there was no evidence that she had intended to “bring harm or violence to the students, staff or faculty.”
Still, the intrigue around a possible motive lingered.
Ms. Shin lives in a high-rise apartment building near Rutgers University, about three miles from the 2,400-student school where she pretended to be a student.
She graduated from Rutgers in 2019 with a degree in political science and Chinese, a university spokeswoman said. She had been taking classes toward a master’s degree but was not employed after what Mr. Jung described as a “bitter divorce.”
In 2022, her landlord filed a lawsuit after she fell roughly $20,000 behind on rent, court records show. Mr. Gelber said that debt was likely linked to her divorce, which was finalized about two years ago.
Neither Aubrey A. Johnson, the superintendent of schools in New Brunswick, nor his spokesman replied to messages on Monday. But Mr. Johnson has said that the district would be evaluating “how to better look for fake documentation and other things.”
Schools in New Jersey are required to provisionally enroll all children, even in the absence of records typically provided to verify identity or prove they live in the community. From that point, students have 30 days to provide additional proof of identity, or the district has the option to declare them ineligible to attend class, according to the superintendent.
Ms. Shin first arrived in the United States at 16 to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts, Mr. Gelber said.
“This entire case,” he said, “is more about my client’s desire to return to a place of safety and welcoming in an environment that she looks back on with fondness — and nothing more.”
“I’m no psychologist,” he added, “but separated from her family and being in a different country — as well as a couple of other stressors in her life — may have caused her to act very uncharacteristically.”
Ms. Shin had been a “top-notch” student at Rutgers, he said.
At her alma mater, she was named a learning community scholar in 2017. At the time, she said her main academic interests were language and linguistics and their influence on “human identity and culture.”
According to a website devoted to the scholars’ program, she practiced meditation and enjoyed singing “when no one is around.”
“I can be very quiet, but I do slowly open up and start talking more as I become more comfortable,” she wrote.
Before court on Monday, Ms. Shin was interviewed by law enforcement officers who screen candidates for the pretrial intervention program; she is due back in court on May 15.
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