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2020-10-23 12:33:08

EF Education First, a Swedish company whose extracurricular English classes for children are popular among Chinese parents, is being criticized in the country after a former teacher recently pleaded guilty in the U.S. to sexually exploiting a previous pupil in China.

Following Chinese reports of the court case, the Swedish company sought to clarify in a statement on its Weibo microblog Friday that the alleged crime happened when the man, an American national, was back in the U.S. after his employment with EF in China had already been terminated for breaking the company’s code of conduct. To many online, this raised questions on what motivated EF to part ways with the man.

According to the bill of particulars released Oct. 6 by the Western District of Missouri’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, 47-year-old former EF English teacher Curtis J. Baldwin is facing between 15 and 50 years in prison for blackmailing a 12-year-old girl, a former student of his, into engaging in “sexually explicit conduct.”

Baldwin contacted the student, identified in court documents as Jane Doe, through messaging app WeChat after his employment with EF was terminated on Nov. 20 of last year. He claimed that he had lewd video footage of the girl, and that he would post it online unless she sent him more sexually explicit videos and photos.

When the girl’s father saw the messages that December, he contacted EF, which then contacted the FBI.

According to the bill of particulars, federal agents searched through Baldwin’s laptop in March and found “multiple videos of minor Chinese females engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” The source of the videos is unclear.

When contacted for comment, an EF public relations officer referred Sixth Tone to the company’s statement on Weibo. She declined to explain how Baldwin had breached EF’s code of conduct.

Many Chinese parents value their children attaining a high level of English ability, creating a near-insatiable demand for foreign teachers in the country. They are sometimes regarded with suspicion because employers have been willing to hire teachers without the right documents, experience, or even grasp of grammar.

EF, which has locations in dozens of cities across China, came under scrutiny last year after seven of its teachers were detained for allegedly testing positive for drugs.

Xu Hao, a member of nongovernmental organization Girls’ Protection, told Sixth Tone on Friday that “there is no perfect solution” for preventing the sexual abuse of children at educational institutions, whether public or private.

Xu suggested institutions like EF could better screen new staff, reinforce legal education, and strictly prohibit those who have criminal histories from coming into contact with underage students.

Last month, China issued a new nationwide regulation to prevent child sexual abuse cases and announced the establishment of a sex offenders database. Kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools — but not institutions that offer extracurricular classes like EF — will be required to check job applicants against the database.

Contributions: Du Xinyu; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A woman walks into an EF Education First branch in Shanghai, Aug. 19, 2018. Wang Xiaofei/People Visual)