China launched a nationwide investigation into its kindergartens on Friday after parents at a Beijing preschool said toddlers had apparent needle marks and were given mysterious pills -- sparking outrage days after another daycare scandal.
Security personnel installed a cordon at the gate of the RYB Education New World kindergarten on Friday after dozens of curious onlookers crowded outside the high-end, bilingual Chinese-English nursery, which was still operating.
A day earlier, furious parents had gathered in front of the gate to demand answers from RYB, which is run by a company that started trading on the New York stock exchange in September. Its shares plunged by more than 40 percent in after-hours trading.
China's official Xinhua news agency said children were also "reportedly sexually molested" but gave no further details.
Li Jing, mother of a three-year-old girl, told AFP her daughter had not been abused but said other children had explained how they were coerced into taking pills.
"Other kids were saying it's not to be called taking a pill, but a reward. And the pill is not to be called a pill, but a jelly bean, and is a little secret between the child and the teacher," Li said.
She chose to bring her daughter to school on Friday because she trusted the girl's teacher, but admitted: "I still feel a bit uneasy."
The Chaoyang district government said police opened an investigation after parents reported the suspected abuse on Wednesday.
Though authorities have so far declined to confirm or provide more details about the allegations, the incident prompted the education steering committee of China's State Council, its top administrative body, to call for an "immediate" investigation into kindergartens across the country.
"Lately, many places have had incidents where children have been violated and harmed in kindergartens, which has had an abominable impact and caused major harm to their families," it said in a circular published on the Ministry of Education's official website.
- 'Two white pills after lunch' -
The magazine Caixin said eight children had apparent needle marks and that the incidents occurred in two classes with kids aged between two and six. Parents also said children were fed unidentified pills.
"I asked my child after I heard what other parents said and my child said that they had taken two white pills after lunch, and slept after eating the pills," one father told CCTV outside the school on Thursday.
The kindergarten is located adjacent to a large military base, and rumours flew online that military officials there were involved in sexually abusing the children.
Fun Junfeng, the base's political commissioner, confirmed in an interview with the PLA Daily that the husband of the school's director was previously an official there, but said there was so far "no evidence" that military personnel had been involved in the abuse.
"But this is just the first step of the investigation," he added.
RYB apologised to parents and said it was cooperating with the police investigation.
"We are currently working with the police to provide relevant surveillance materials and equipment. The teachers in question have been suspended," the company said in a social media statement.
- 'Severe mistakes' -
RYB Education directly operates 80 kindergartens and has franchised another 175 in 130 cities across China for children ranging from newborns to six-year-olds, according to its Nasdaq listing.
It is the third time in just over a year that one of its schools has faced abuse allegations.
RYB already apologised in April and suspended the head of a Beijing kindergarten after admitting that teachers committed "severe mistakes". The Beijing News had obtained videos showing teachers throwing a child on a bed and kicking another in the back.
The People's Court Daily reported that two teachers from a RYB kindergarten in northeast Jilin province were sentenced to 34 months in prison for jabbing children in the head, inside their mouths, and on their legs and buttocks with sewing needles in October 2016.
Zhang Zhiqiang came to the Beijing nursery on Friday to cancel his two-year-old daughter's enrollment after reading about the latest scandal, though she was not among the alleged victims.
He said the school refunded him the 18,000 yuan ($2,725) annual tuition fee.
The "international" class in which children were allegedly abused was even more expensive, parents told AFP, with tuition of more than 5,000 yuan ($760) a month.
The latest allegations came a week after Chinese online travel agency Ctrip suspended two officials after footage emerged of workers abusing toddlers at a company daycare centre in Shanghai.
The clips showed young children of Ctrip employees being roughly handled and punished by being force-fed what parents claimed was spicy mustard at the company's Shanghai headquarters.
Police detained three daycare staff for suspected abuse.