Police in Beijing have detained a teacher as they investigate allegations that children were drugged and molested at a kindergarten.
A 22-year-old female teacher surnamed Liu at RYB Xintiandi, a private kindergarten in Beijing, was taken into custody Saturday for allegedly abusing students, Beijing police said in a statement. Chinese police often don't provide the full names of suspects.
The police also announced the detention of another woman for "rumor mongering," accusing her of posting fabricated information online about the involvement of military personnel in the incident, which prompted an unusual denial from the Defense Ministry in a press release Friday.
RYB Education, the Beijing-based and New York-listed company that runs the kindergarten, apologized to children, parents and the public in a statement issued Saturday. It said it had fired both the detained teacher and the head of the kindergarten, while continuing its full cooperation with the authorities in the investigation.
"There was serious breach of duty in our management," the statement said. "We must bear responsibility, deeply reflect, and thoroughly investigate and rectify (our operations)."
The company promised to provide psychological counseling to the victims, upgrade safety measures in its facilities and set up an independent supervision system.
But the latest developments appear to have failed to quell intense nationwide debates about the incident, which has triggered public outrage, parental soul-searching, government pledges and online censorship.
The story broke last week after numerous parents accused RYB Xintiandi of drugging and molesting their children.
According to one parent -- in a video posted on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter -- at least eight parents told police that their young children had been drugged and molested while attending the school.
The video was viewed millions of times before being deleted from Weibo.
The unidentified mother told reporters on November 23 that her 3-year-old daughter said she was injected with a brown liquid by a teacher and made to strip along with other children before being "examined" by a naked adult male stranger.
She said she and other parents allegedly found multiple needle marks on their children's bodies, adding that the kindergarten and the police had not allowed them to review videos from the school's surveillance cameras.
"My child said the teacher told them it was a secret and they were not supposed to tell anyone else, including parents," the mother said. "She now bursts into screaming at night, saying, 'I'm not sick, why do I have to get a shot?'"
Beijing police have performed forensic tests and obtained surveillance camera footage from the kindergarten, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
RYB Education saw its stock price plummet almost 40% Friday on the New York Stock Exchange. The company announced a plan to buy back shares worth $50 million in a call with investors Friday, prompting criticism online that it puts profits before public interests as it had not held a press conference on the incident.
The company and its franchisees operate in approximately 300 Chinese cities and run about 1,300 daycare centers and 500 kindergartens.
In an earlier statement, released Friday, RYB Education said it had provided the relevant surveillance videos and equipment to the police, adding: "Before a clear conclusion can be drawn, our priority is to help the students and their parents emotionally, and try to minimize the impact of the incident on the children."
That statement also said the head of the kindergarten had filed a police report that alleged "false accusations and being framed by certain individuals" -- without specifying who.
As more details emerged, the government scrambled to respond to the incident. Both the national education ministry and the municipal education authority in Beijing have pledged cooperation with the police and swift investigations on their own, with local officials sending a team to the kindergarten.
CNN sought a direct response from the company and local education officials on Sunday but those calls were not answered. On Friday, attempts to contact the kindergarten and local education officials on site were thwarted by security guards, who said no one would make additional comments beyond previously issued statements.
Anger on social media
It was relatively quiet around the RYB Xintiandi campus Friday, with some parents and onlookers gathering outside the gate where a copy of the corporate statement was posted.
One grandfather, who had just picked up his granddaughter but declined to be named, told CNN that the 4-year-old mentioned her classmates being forced to take white pills for disobedience and everyone was told to keep it a secret.
Another resident of the neighborhood who identified himself as Mr. Liu said the kindergarten is the best in the area and costs as much as 5,000 yuan ($750) a month for bilingual class students. He said he was furious upon hearing the news, but still believes those were isolated cases based on what he had learned about the school from a relative whose child went there.
Many internet users, however, have continued to angrily reject RYB's response as "inadequate" and have called for severe punishment for those found responsible.
Past incidents involving RYB kindergartens included two cases in northeastern China, where four RYB teachers were each sentenced to more than two years in prison for abusing 17 children.
Amid growing public outcry over the scandal, Chinese government censors seem to have moved to contain the fallout. Many users have complained about the disappearance of their posts on the subject on social media. Comment sections are turned off for many online news reports on this story.
Even one of the most influential news executives at a state media outlet questioned the wisdom of such heavy-handed tactics on Weibo before his post was taken down.
"The authorities should be cautious when deleting posts," Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a popular state-run nationalistic tabloid, wrote Thursday as news of the scandal had begun to spread online. "They should only target those posts that maliciously stretch the topic to politics, in order to prevent the deletion from arousing more suspicion."
Parents share tips
Across Chinese cyberspace, parents of young children have started sharing tips on detection and prevention of such cases -- some directly copied from school literature in the United States.
Earlier this month, videos of teachers at a Shanghai kindergarten physically attacking kids and force-feeding them what appeared to be mustard went viral.
Shanghai police quickly detained several employees at the facility, while the municipal government's women's affairs agency, with which the kindergarten is affiliated, had to apologize to the parents and public.
Critics have long said current Chinese laws are too vague and lax on child abuse and sexual molestation cases.
Media in China have documented a rising number of incidents of abuse at childcare facilities, often in small cities and towns. In a lengthy investigative piece published last year, Xinhua said only 968 cases of sexual abuse against children were recorded nationwide between 2013 and 2015, involving at least 1,790 children, with many remaining unreported.