NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey – The mystery of the 29-year-old woman who pretended to be a 16-year-old teenager to enrol in a New Jersey high school seemed to capture the imagination of America, drawing millions of viewers to news articles, TikTok and YouTube.
Parents questioned the seeming ease with which she tricked school officials and was able to wander the hallways, attend classes and meet guidance counsellors for four days in January.
Students at the school, New Brunswick High, said they feared that the woman, Shin Hye-jeong, had malicious, possibly criminal, intentions after she tried to set up meetings with them at a location outside of school.
On Monday, two lawyers hired by her family laid out a far less sinister explanation for the odd behaviour: 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.
“There are personal issues that she needs to resolve,” said Mr Henry Hong Jung, one of the lawyers. “She’s been away from home a long time.”
The New York Post said she was charged with providing a false government document and hindering her own prosecution. On Monday, at her second court appearance, she entered a not-guilty plea to the charges, which a prosecutor said carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Her lawyers told the judge that she intends to apply to a programme that diverts first-time offenders from the criminal justice system and enables them to wipe their record clean after a successful period of probation.
Shin, who is not an American citizen but is in the United States 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,” Shin, dressed in a blazer and blue jeans, her dark hair cinched in a ponytail, said after the court session.
Within weeks of her Jan 24 arrest on charges that she provided school officials with documents that falsified her age, 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”. She is due back in court on May 15. NYTIMES