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‘She was lying about something’: Burke students recall the woman who posed as a student for months

Students departed the Jeremiah E. Burke High School at the end of the school day in May.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Her classmates called her “Daneilla.”

At the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, where students say she enrolled in the fall, Daneilla was quiet and kept to herself. Fifteen-year-old student Janell Lamons could sympathize with her: Like Lamons, Daneilla was new to the Burke and hadn’t made any friends yet. She seemed lonely, so Lamons started eating lunch with her in the library.

“I thought that she was 16, 17 — at least [that’s] what she told me — and she was super smart,” Lamons said. “Whenever we needed help with math, she would help us during math class.”

But Daneilla wasn’t who she said she was. This week, Superintendent Mary Skipper revealed that an adult woman impersonating a teenager enrolled under multiple aliases in three Boston schools, including not only the Burke, but Brighton and English high schools. Neither the district nor police have identified the woman, who has been ordered to stay away from all BPS facilities.

Janell Lamons, a former student at Jeremiah E. Burke High School, stood with her mother, Robin Williams, at their home in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But sources with knowledge of the investigation say the woman is Shelby Hewitt, a 32-year-old former Department of Children and Families social worker. A department spokesperson confirmed that a woman by that name was employed there until February. The department said it “received a report and is investigating,” but would not release further information. Multiple Burke students who were shown a 16-year-old high school yearbook photo of Hewitt, when she was a Sharon High School sophomore, said it matched the classmate they knew as Daneilla. Hewitt did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

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Both parents and students at the Burke were flummoxed over why an adult woman would impersonate a teenager and spend months in their classrooms. They also raised concerns over school safety and questioned why district officials allowed her to enroll in the first place.

“What was her intent?… What did she get out of it?” said Templar Kinney, the mother of 16-year-old Burke student Isaiah Price. “I find it disturbing.”

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To enroll at a BPS school, the woman would have needed a number of fraudulent documents. According to the district website, required paperwork includes a birth certificate, immigration form, or passport; medical records; a guardian’s photo ID; and multiple other documents demonstrating Boston residency.

The woman, however, told Burke classmates she was in foster care, which would have required the school — under federal law — to immediately enroll her, “without waiting to receive the typical student enrollment documentation,” according to state guidance. The enrolling school is supposed to then get records from the student’s prior school, and a DCF representative must present their agency ID and a form showing the student is in foster care. It remains unknown what documents BPS received from the woman.

The woman’s Burke classmates said she kept changing details of her story. At one point, according to Lamons, Daneilla said her parents had died from a drug overdose. Later, Lamons said, Daneilla claimed her father was in prison. She told Price that she was homeless.

That wasn’t the only thing that raised eyebrows. There was the fact that, despite being petite, she looked too old to be in high school. She also dressed a little too well and drove a car to school.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” said Price, who noticed Daneilla usually wore expensive Jordans and brand-name clothes. “It was low-key like she was lying about something.”

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But lots of kids at the Burke are old for their grade, said 18-year-old Burke student Chris Cruz, who was friendly with the woman. And Daneilla, who took freshman math and history classes with Lamons, said she had been held back. According to multiple students, Daneilla claimed she was an immigrant from Colombia, and she seemed to struggle in reading and writing.

“She did say that she does speak Spanish, but I never heard her speak Spanish,” Lamons recalled.

At school, the woman was known for having emotional outbursts in the hallways or in the classrooms, particularly, Lamons said, when teachers pressed her to show more effort. She would also complain about her “controlling” foster mother, Lamons said. Another student who took sheltered English immersion with her also recalled her talking on the phone with her “mom” often.

“The way I looked at it, she was going through a lot at once,” said Price, who tried to comfort her once while she was crying by the lockers.

The woman attended the Burke for months, students said. She later joined the girls’ basketball team, choosing the jersey No. 32, according to her former teammates, Zahkia Warren, 17, and Janice Mendes, 18. An older man they assumed was her foster dad would go to their games to watch her play. On media day, when the team was photographed, the woman stood off to the side by the coach; she said her foster parents wouldn’t allow her to be in the pictures.

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“We all want to know why ... somebody that old would choose to go back to high school to do the work,” said Mendes, who, along with Warren, graduated earlier this month, “[when] we’re trying to get out of it.”

They said the last time they saw Daneilla was at the end of basketball season this spring.

When they heard Daneilla was an adult woman posing as a teenager, her former teammates were shocked and unsettled.

“We all used to change in the locker rooms,” Warren said. “It’s disturbing to know that.”

School officials have not identified any cases where students or staff were harmed in connection with the woman’s enrollment. A Boston police spokesperson said the investigation remains active. No charges have been filed, and on Wednesday, a search warrant associated with the case was impounded, meaning the public doesn’t have access to it.

“I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” said Robin Williams, Lamons’s mother. “She’s a grown woman and she’s friends with kids Janell’s age. … And she’s taking a seat from a child that should be there.”

A “human trafficking” box is checked off on the initial police incident report, but officials have not indicated they have evidence supporting that motive — or any other.

Beyond any other actions she took while posing as a student, the woman could be charged with forgery and identity theft — potentially multiple counts for enrolling under multiple names. She could face several years in prison, said Patrick Murphy, a Boston criminal defense attorney not associated with the case.

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According to the police report, staff at English High School called the police on Wednesday after noticing issues with the impersonator’s paperwork: a Department of Children and Families form misspelled the department name, listed the wrong phone number, and named a DCF social worker who does not exist.

Lamons left the Burke in November to attend another school, but she never forgot her friend Daneilla. Now she feels betrayed.

“I believed Daneilla,” she said. “From the first day, I just gave her a shot.”

Sean Cotter of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her @DDpan. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.