Protesters in New Taipei demand facts about alleged drugging of preschool kids
New Taipei, June 18 (CNA) Hundreds of protesters gathered in the plaza front of New Taipei City Hall on Sunday, calling for transparency on the matter of a preschool in the city that has been accused of sedating its young students.
Dressed in white to symbolize truth and the innocence of children, the protesters shouted for New Taipei City Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) to thoroughly investigate the allegations against the unnamed preschool, which was a franchise of Kid Castle Educational Institute, a leading English language school for children.
Many of the protesters also brought along their kids and held up placards that read, "Don't drug my children."
Mayor Hou, the opposition Kuomintang's (KMT) 2024 mayoral candidate, was at city hall, hosting a wedding during the demonstration, but he did not go out to the plaza, where the hundreds of protesters were gathered.
The protest was organized by opposition New Power Party (NPP) Chairwoman Claire Wang (王婉諭) and party member Angela Wang (王薇君), who also chairs the Taiwan Children's Rights Association (TCRA), and it was staged in the wake of an online petition launched by parents, urging people to take to the streets to demand transparency by the city government.
The allegations against the preschool in Banqiao District were first made on May 14, when the parents of three children reported to police that a teacher had given their children unknown drugs and used improper physical methods to discipline them.
In the reports to the police, the parents said they had noticed behavioral changes in their children, including extreme irritability and incidents of self-harm, during the period February to April.
In response, prosecutors conducted a search of the school on May 18 and detained the first accused teacher, surnamed Chao (趙), for questioning, but they later released her on bail of NT$20,000 (US$652).
Since then, more than a dozen other parents have filed similar reports with the police.
According to Angela Wang, some parents had requested help from the TCRA even before the first official police report was filed on May 14, and they said that their children had developed some strange behaviors such as pulling their own hair and bashing against walls.
Some of the parents had also filed complaints with the city government about the Banqiao preschool before the sedation allegations made the news, but the city government took no action, she said, adding that she and a group of parents were then forced to seek help from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Legislator Claire Wang also accused Hou's city government of failing to respond with any urgency to the drugging allegations, and she said it was almost a month before the city government moved to start testing children at the school on June 5.
With the tests conducted some 22 days after the reports were filed, it was almost impossible to trace any drug residues in the children's systems, and therefore it was highly unlikely that the truth would come to light, she said.
One of the mothers at Sunday's protest told CNA that she had decided to travel all the way from Taichung with her 5-year-old daughter to join the demonstration because it was a matter of concern for all parents of preschool children.
The woman, surnamed Huang (黃), said she thought the New Taipei City Government should have moved more quickly to investigate the allegations against the Banqiao school, and it should impose heavy penalties on anyone found to have drugged the children.
A father surnamed Chiu (邱) from New Taipei, whose son is about to start preschool in September, said he had joined the protesters because he wanted to assess all sides of the story about the New Taipei City Government's tardiness, which he had first heard when it was reported in the media.
Meanwhile, Claire Wang said the protest was also a call for more comprehensive laws on early childhood education and childcare and for better oversight by the central and local governments, amid the rising incidence of reported child abuse in preschools and kindergartens.
Citing 2022 data, Wang said 11,950 cases of child abuse were reported to authorities in Taiwan, which averaged one reported case every 43 minutes.
Since the news broke of the alleged drugging at the Banqiao preschool, Mayor Hou has apologized twice, saying that he is heartbroken and always feels a sense of responsibility whenever such cases are reported.
The city government did refer the matter to prosecutors for investigation immediately after it received the complaints, and a task force was assembled to look into the allegations, Hou added.
According to the New Taipei City Government, the results of blood tests carried out June 1 at Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital on some children from the Banqiao preschool showed the presence of barbiturates, a class of central nervous system depressant drugs used to help patients sleep, to relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and to prevent seizures.
As of June 8, a total of 28 children at the school, which has 67 students, had been given drug tests, with eight found to have traces of barbiturates in their systems, the New Taipei City Government said.
Among the 28 children, 16 were give drugs tests initiated by the city's Education Bureau on June 5. Before that, the parents of the others had taken their children to local hospitals for testing.
According to Yen Tzung-hai (顏宗海), a nephrologist at Chang Gung hospital, barbiturates are prescription drugs used in hospitals and are classified as Level 3 controlled substances by the Ministry of Justice, meaning that in theory they are not easily accessible to the general public.
An overdose of barbiturates can cause respiratory problems and pose life-threatening risks, he said.
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