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A New York-listed Chinese education company was under police investigation on Friday after accusations of suspected child abuse at one of its Beijing kindergartens set off a social media firestorm.
The controversy surrounding RYB Education erupted on Thursday after parents circulated pictures of what they alleged were needle marks on their children. Others said toddlers at the Red-Yellow-Blue Kindergarten in eastern Beijing had been given white pills before naptime.
RYB’s shares were scheduled to resume trading on Friday morning New York time, when the New York exchange reopens for a shortened Thanksgiving holiday session. They last closed at $26.71, 11 per cent off their year-to-date high.
Censors moved rapidly to delete angry social media posts by parents while police and education officials announced that safety inspections would be conducted at preschools across the capital.
The company remains a hot topic on social media, with people finding ways to circumvent censors. Dozens of people were waging a campaign on Weibo to pressure investors to sell shares in the group.
In panicked messages that spread rapidly on social media platforms, parents across Beijing speculated that the children had been drugged.
In response, China’s State Council ordered safety reviews at kindergartens across the country.
A spokesman for RYB Education could not be reached to comment.
In a statement issued on Friday, RYB Education said it had suspended the teachers allegedly involved and promised to co-operate fully with a police investigation.
“Children are the nation’s future and the hope of every family,” the company said. “Providing a safe environment and easing the concerns of parents and society is our unshirkable responsibility.”
RYB Education operates 80 kindergartens and has franchised an additional 175 in more than 130 cities and towns across China. About 20,000 students are enrolled at its schools. It has an equity value of $766m.
Beijing police and kindergarten employees confirmed that an official investigation was under way. “The police came last night to take the surveillance video footage,” an employee said on Thursday afternoon. “The class involved has been suspended but the rest of the school is operating normally and security staffing has been doubled.”
A parent who asked not to be identified said the class where abuse was suspected included 20 children, most of them three-year-olds.
This month scandal engulfed a pre-school in Shanghai after videos appeared to show teachers physically abusing children and forcing them to eat wasabi, the eye-watering Japanese condiment. Investigations are continuing at the kindergarten, which catered to children of parents working at Ctrip, China’s most popular online travel booking website.
“Ctrip deeply regrets this unfortunate incident. The third-party contractor has been terminated and we are fully co-operating with authorities as appropriate. We are offering professional support to the affected children and parents,” said Ctrip.
“Ctrip has always strived to provide a flexible, family-friendly work environment. We are currently investigating what went wrong here. We stand firmly with the parents and are evaluating the best options going forward.”