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BEJING — A group of Chinese high-school students have been accused of drugging a female classmate with a so-called aphrodisiac — triggering online debate about the incident's alleged homophobic motive.
The incident happened last Thursday in the eastern city of Huangshan, but was only confirmed by the local education authority on Tuesday.
One Chinese news website said the girl was targeted because she was a lesbian, but officials would not comment on the alleged motive.
The local police and education board said in separate statements that a group of male classmates secretly put the substance in a glass of water. When she found out, the teen posted about it on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent.
By Thursday, the trending topic had gained nearly 30 million views and 200,000 comments.
"We should not blame the boys. She is a lesbian. They just want to help her become normal"
"It happened during my class break," the student said in the post, which was seen by NBC News before it was later deleted. "When I drank the water, I never thought my classmates would drug me. They wanted to see me embarrassed but I was lucky the drug didn't work."
Officials would not identify the so-called aphrodisiac, saying only it had been bought in an "adult shop." According to local education officials, the female student accepted an apology and the male students were punished in line with school rules.
Wei Tingting, one of five Chinese feminist activists detained for planning a protest last year, told NBC News that the incident was "insulting to women."
"They are so young but what they did is so terrible," Wei added. "Schools should strengthen education guiding students to respect women."
The case does not meet the standard for a criminal case in China, but a poll of 120,000 people on Weibo showed that 90 percent thought the punishment was too soft.
"I can’t believe this happened in a high school. I am so sorry about the girl. What her classmates did is unforgivable," said one Weibo user.
Chinese news website Sina News said the boys targeted the girl because she was a lesbian, although it did not provide support for this claim. The alleged victim also listed her sexual orientation as lesbian on Weibo.
The Huangshan Education Bureau told journalists they should not "use the word 'gay' ... without investigation and verification," saying the label would "hurt her a second time."
That response only caused further outrage among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups.
"How shameful it is being a lesbian?" said LGBT Rights Advocacy China in a statement Wednesday. "Could it be more shameful than the failure of education? Could it be more shameful than the school violence?"
Others weren't sosympathetic.
"We should not blame the boys. She is a lesbian. They just want to help her become normal," read one post on the school's chatroom on Baidu.