At age 16, Hyejeong Shin came to the United States from South Korea and attended boarding school in Massachusetts. In 2019, she graduated from Rutgers with a degree in political science and Chinese, got married, and set up her home in a high-rise not far from the New Jersey university. Then, earlier this year, the 29-year-old enrolled at nearby New Brunswick High School and pretended to be a high school student for nearly a full school week—an act that has earned Shin a grand jury indictment and an acknowledgement from her own attorneys that the whole situation is "very bizarre." "It may be difficult for people to understand," attorney Darren M. Gelber concedes to the New York Times.
Shin, accused of forging a birth certificate to pull off her 21 Jump Street scheme, pleaded not guilty in court Monday on charges of providing a false document and hindering her own prosecution. During her four days in January at New Brunswick High, Shin attended class, met with guidance counselors, and interacted with students, pretending all the while to be a 16-year-old herself. Some students who say Shin tried to meet with them outside of school became wary she was acting maliciously, maybe even criminally. But her attorneys now say the underlying reason was much more innocuous: She was "simply lonely" and wanted to re-create the feeling of safety she'd felt when attending boarding school in her younger years, per the New York Post.
As it turns out, per one of Shin's lawyers, she'd gone through a "bitter divorce," and court records from a 2022 landlord lawsuit show she owed about $20,000 in back rent after that split. Gelber says his client knows she made a mistake. "At no time was anyone or any student in danger," he tells ABC7. As for how the school was able to be so easily fooled, the Times notes that New Jersey schools are mandated to let students attend provisionally without the proper documentation in place; the family then has 30 days to produce needed identification. Shin, who's in the United States legally, says she wants to return home to South Korea after her legal troubles here are resolved, per her attorneys. They say she's hoping to apply to a pretrial intervention program that lets first-time offenders have their records scrubbed after a probation period. Shin is due back in court May 15. (Read more strange stuff stories.)