Dozens of upset parents gathered today outside a kindergarten in Beijing run by a U.S.-listed company to demand answers, after reports emerged alleging some children had been molested, abused and left with what appeared to be needle marks on their bodies.
The allegations, coming just weeks after reports of abuse at a Shanghai day-care centre, prompted a wave of anger from parents nationwide and a swift government response. The State Council, China's cabinet, on Friday ordered nationwide inspections of kindergartens to review teacher conduct, citing "recent incidents in many locations."
After worrying about food and drug safety for years, Chinese parents say they now worry about potential lapses in supervision in the booming private preschool industry.
The latest scandal in Beijing erupted after influential newsmagazine Caixin and other Chinese media quoted some parents as saying their children were molested, forced to strip as punishment, found with unexplained apparent needle marks on their bodies and made to take unidentified white pills. The claims could not be independently verified.
A group of parents demanded answers outside the Xintiandi school gate on Friday while other parents led their children past reporters and plainclothes security agents to the doors.
"We need clarification. As parents, we have the right to question the school, don't we?" said a father, who gave only his surname, Wang.
Another man, who also gave only his surname, Li, said: "If there is no explanation, I'm not sending my child here anymore. I will come over every day until they respond."
The Beijing Municipal Commission of Education said it would inspect other kindergartens in the Chinese capital, while the company that runs the preschool, Beijing-based RYB Education, said in a statement it has suspended three teachers. It promised to co-operate with police in a thorough investigation and vowed "zero tolerance" for abusive staff.
It's the latest case involving schools to spark online outrage in China.
"Laws must be enforced, supervision strengthened, teacher wages increased," an editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency said. "The child-care industry cannot be allowed to grow in an uncivilized fashion."
Earlier this month, surveillance video emerged of abuse at a Shanghai daycare centre run by China's largest online travel company, Ctrip. The video, uploaded by angry parents on Chinese social media, showed teachers slapping a crying girl, pushing a toddler to the ground and force-feeding students a substance later confirmed to be wasabi. In April, RYB Education suspended the headmaster and two teachers at another branch in Beijing after a video of a teacher kicking children was widely shared online.
In its statement on the latest reports, RYB suggested it was the victim of frame-up and false accusations by an "individual," and said it raised this with police.
Concern rippled beyond families at the school. Pictures of alleged injuries were widely shared by users of China's WeChat messaging service before the country's internet censors started deleting posts.
"This is quite terrifying," said Zhang Yang, a mother in Beijing whose children don't attend RYB schools. She said the allegations were alarming because they were being made against a well-known private institution.
"All my friends went home and asked their children if they've ever been given medications or injected," Zhang said.
RYB and its franchisees operate 1,300 daycare centres and nearly 500 kindergartens in 300 Chinese cities, according to its website.
The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September, joining other Chinese providers capitalizing on rising demand from the country's emerging middle class for educational services.
In China, private early education programs have seen steady growth in a market forecast to reach the equivalent of $38 billion Cdn in 2017, according to China Online Education Institute. But experts and parents say China lacks skilled and experienced teachers and adequate oversight over the rapidly expanding sector.
Early childhood education providers like RYB that are focused on rapid expansion to drive profits will find it hard to ensure teacher quality, said Yong Zhao, a professor specializing in Chinese education at the University of Kansas.
"When education becomes a profit-driven centre, you have to sacrifice somewhere," Zhao said. "You will not be willing to spend more money on people and you will not attract high-quality educators."