Teachers accused of abusing children should suffer harsher punishment

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Beijing police have taken a 22-year-old female teacher into custody for allegedly drugging and molesting her kindergarten students. RYB Education, the Beijing-based and New York-listed company that runs the kindergarten, apologized to the children, parents, and public in a press release issued Nov. 25 of this year. The company operates in approximately 300 Chinese cities and runs about 1,300 daycare centers and 500 kindergartens. The company said they fired the teacher and the head of the kindergarten and suspended other teachers involved. The company also promised to provide psychological counseling to the victims, upgrade safety measures, and set up an independent supervision system. However, like many people have expressed on social media, I agree that the company’s response to the incident has been less than adequate.

Parents of the children at the school are horrified that such an incident could happen at a prestigious school (one that costs as much as 5,000 yuan, equivalent to $750, a month). In fear, many parents have pulled their children out of the school. As a result of the incident, RYB’s stock plummeted about 40 percent, and the company announced a plan to buy back shares worth $50 million. This shows how the company puts profit before public interest, as they made their announcement before even holding a press conference about the incident.

This isn’t the first time teachers at an RYB-run school have faced sexual abuse charges. In two cases in northeastern China, four RYB teachers were each sentenced to more than two years in prison for abusing 17 children. This begs the question: How can this current incident be unrelated? The answer: it’s not. There are undoubtedly corrupt practices occurring behind the scenes regarding the way that teachers are hired. The number of teachers accused is too high for anyone to think otherwise.

The incident has brought in much attention to child abuse and sexual molestation laws in China. The laws in place now are extremely vague and lax, leading many cases to go unreported, especially in rural areas. The media in China has documented many cases of sexual abuse in childcare facilities. In an investigative piece published last year, 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. With such flimsy laws, how can anyone be confident enough to report abuse to the police?

RYB’s insufficient response and action towards the incident has led many parents to take responsibility upon themselves to educate other caregivers on how to look for signs of abuse on their children. I believe it is disheartening that parents have to resort to helping each other protect their children through these means when laws should be changed to give stricter punishments to molesters. This would, in turn, give parents the confidence to report more of these incidents to the police.

The most heartbreaking stories to read were of parents' responses to how they found out their child was abused, and the effects it had on their child. One mother told reporters her three-year-old daughter was asked to strip after being injected with a brown liquid, along with other children, before being "examined" by a naked adult male stranger. The mother, as well as other parents of the victims, told reporters they found multiple needle marks on their children's bodies. A grandfather picking up his four-year-old granddaughter said the four-year old mentioned her classmates were being forced to take white pills for disobedience and everyone was told to keep it a secret. Yet another mother reported that her child told her that the teacher said it was a secret and they cannot tell anyone, not even their parents. The mother said, "She now bursts into screaming at night, saying, 'I'm not sick, why do I have to get a shot?'"

It is painful to even imagine what these children and their parents have been through, and simply suspending or firing the teachers responsible is not enough. More severe punishment must be doled out to the perpetrators to ensure that people get the message that such disgusting, immoral acts will not be tolerated or dealt with lightly. However, since this incident received so much attention, other parents with small children were prompted to check on their children. This led to the uncovering of dozens of instances of abuse at a Shanghai kindergarten run by a leading Chinese travel agency. In response, the Chinese government has ordered a nationwide investigation into all kindergartens, and has promised stricter punishment for perpetrators of child abuse. However, posts and comments on social media, and public fury at this scandal may reflect a deeper anxiety and uncertainty among ordinary Chinese citizens.

This incident is eerily familiar to the abominable incident in 2002 in Boston, MA, where former priest John J. Geoghan was charged for molesting children. Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people have come forward with horrific recollections of how former priest John J. Geoghan fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree. These children were afraid to speak up because they were afraid of the consequences, and they were unsure of how to handle the situation, because it was their priest, a friend of their family, who had done this to them.

This shows how it’s not just in China where incidents of molestation go unreported. There are numerous cases, not only in the U.S., but also in other countries, that are not brought to light because people are afraid of the repercussions, and in most cases, the law is not strong enough on child abuse to give victims confidence that they will be supported. There aren’t enough words to express my disgust towards the perpetrators for harming these children. It angers me further how the teachers were simply suspended or fired, and harsher punishment is not being dealt to them. I believe, however, it is the media’s role to seek out these stories and report the truth to spread awareness of such situations, because, sadly, they happen around the globe and more often than we suspect.