Four people linked to viral video footage of Mississippi day care employees using a scary mask to frighten young children are facing charges of felony child abuse, US authorities said.
A fifth person faces two misdemeanour counts after the incident in Hamilton.
The Lil’ Blessings Child Care and Learning Centre’s owner, Sheila Sanders, is not facing charges. She has said that at least four of the employees were sacked after the video came to light.
The videos – one filmed in September and another this month – were posted on social media.
They show a worker at the centre in north-east Mississippi wearing a Halloween mask similar to the one in the Scream movies and shouting at children who did not “clean up” or “act good”.
Children can be seen crying, cowering in fear and at times running from the masked employee.
Another employee gives directions, singling out which children have behaved well or badly. The employee in the mask is shown screaming inches away from children’s faces, the video showed.
Monroe County Sheriff Kevin Crook said that four of the women each face three counts of felony child abuse. A fifth woman, he says, faces charges of failure to report abuse by a mandatory reporter and simple assault against a minor.
Mr Crook said: “They can’t use corporal punishment, so we think they were using the mask to try to scare the kids into doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
The sheriff said his office, the county prosecuting attorney and the district attorney met earlier this week with the children’s parents about the case.
On Wednesday, at least one set of parents signed felony child abuse complaints, he said, adding a judge had issued warrants on Thursday for the women.
Mr Crook said all five live in the area. Sierra McCandless, 21; Oci-Anna Kilburn, 28; Jennifer Newman, 25, and Shyenne Shelton, 28, are accused of three counts of felony child abuse, the sheriff’s statement said.
Another woman, Traci Hutson, 44, faces charges of failure to report abuse by a mandatory reporter and simple assault against a minor – both misdemeanours, he added.
Katelyn Johnson, a parent, told ABC News that she was shocked after seeing the videos.
She said her two-year-old son is still showing signs of trauma and has difficulty sleeping through the night, and added of the footage: “It’s not a joke. And it’s nothing to laugh at.
“Whether they had a mask on or a mask off, their behaviour was unacceptable. My blood pressure was raised. It broke my heart for my child. I was angry.”
Mr Crook told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that the felony charges will ultimately be presented to the grand jury to determine if there is enough evidence for formal indictments, which could lead to court trials.
“It’s just a shame it happened and this is where we’re at. Hopefully, people will learn from it,” Mr Crook said.
“It can tear a community apart. Everybody who was a part of it knew each other in some shape or form. It’s a lot of emotions to deal with, and our job is to cut through those emotions, find the facts and present those facts.”