China's School Abuse Scandal Shakes Basic Bonds Of Trust

A kindergarten in Suzhou, China
A kindergarten in Suzhou, China
Yan Yong


BEIJING — Two weeks ago, a preschool in Shanghai was exposed for abusing toddlers. One young child was brutally thrown around the floor, while another was forced to eat spicy mustard. Then, last week, a kindergarten in Beijing run by the Red, Yellow and Blue (RYB) Education company, was found to have been injecting children with unknown substances, as well as giving them unauthorized pills. It was not until certain children were discovered to have needle marks that parents were alerted.

Sexual abuse was suspected after some toddlers told their parents that they had been taken to a room and stripped naked in front of a naked man who claimed to be a doctor who needed to check their bodies.

Not only has this news sparked outrage, but it has also challenged people's assumptions. It has long been thought that child abuse cases occurred in remote and poor rural areas. Yet not only do most of these children come from Beijing's most privileged households, but the RYB education company was recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange, overseeing nearly 2,000 kindergartens and nursery schools across China.

This has led to a rapid disintegration of trust in preschools for millions of Chinese families. China's social media is filled with parental tales of anxiety and anger. A mother who was about to put her child in a prestigious nursery asked whether video monitoring will be installed to allow parents to watch and track their toddlers (and the teachers) at any time.

That child abuse in schools has come to light cannot be explained away as just a few random and extreme cases. Instead it is an indication that such problems in China's preschool education system are very real. But we must also acknowledge that such a situation obviously cannot be solved overnight.

This collapse of trust reminds me of the troubled state of China's doctor-patient relationship. People need doctors, yet they don't have confidence in them. Patients are always suspicious of doctors hoodwinking them, while the doctors are also defensive that they will encounter troublesome patients and/or their families. The general lack of transparency of the medical system leads to Chinese patients who tend to be too over-sensitive.

Even if cameras are installed everywhere, they will only expose the most blatant violence.

All of this is very similar to what is happening now to the relation between parents and kindergartens. As noted by one parent, who appeared quite rational amid the current torrent of anger, kindergarten teacher is a profession that requires emotional access. It's not a standardized or mechanized job. If parents are forever suspicious of teachers and the teachers are wary of parents, how can children possibly obtain the best, most open care and education?

The question is worth pondering. Video surveillance seems an extreme response. Without thinking about the problems that come with toilets and the like, even if cameras are installed everywhere, they are only to expose the most blatant violence.

Violence that falls in grey areas – such as screaming, threatening children, or more subtle cruelty — won't be found through videos. Yet such treatment can be no less harmful for children.

The paradox of this scandal is that our society's criterion of what jeopardizes children's interests is actually too low. People are outraged only when schools have breached the most extreme line into blatant violence. In fact, from the perspective of children's interests, a society's belief that adults are superior to children paves the way for all subsequent mistreatment. And for this reason, a collapse of trust between families and nurseries is very worrying indeed.

The special occupational nature of early childhood education requires a professional spirit and quality training, but also an emotional intelligence. Nursery school and kindergarten teachers must know how to respond to the very special reality of life among small children — and also know how to interact with their parents. Only if the family-school relationship is on solid ground can the seeds of goodness grow from the first stopping point on the journey from home to society.

Ultimately I could join the public's appeal for equipping kindergartens with cameras, but I do not think it can solve all the problems. Rather, our society has to form a new consensus. We should allow zero tolerance for any form of abuse or improper treatment of students, or having to follow unwritten rules of bribing teachers with gifts or money in the hope that they will treat their children better.

Our educators, families, the press as well as public opinion should strive for rebuilding trust so that our children can live in a harmonious environment. That's the only way they will learn to trust others in the world as they grow older. This is not naivety but a basic cornerstone of mental health. There's no education without love. And no education system can thrive without the most basic level of trust.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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