Posted on November 30, 2018

Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the Reality.

Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, New York Times, November 30, 2018


T.M. Landry has become a viral Cinderella story, a small school run by Michael Landry, a teacher and former salesman, and his wife, Ms. Landry, a nurse, whose predominantly black, working-class students have escaped the rural South for the nation’s most elite colleges. A video of a 16-year-old student opening his Harvard acceptance letter last year has been viewed more than eight million times. Other Landry students went on to Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Wesleyan.

Landry success stories have been splashed in the past two years on the “Today” show, “Ellen” and the “CBS Morning News.” Education professionals extol T.M. Landry and its 100 or so kindergarten-through-12th-grade students as an example for other Louisiana schools. Wealthy supporters have pushed the Landrys, who have little educational training, to expand to other cities. Small donors, heartened by the web videos, send in a steady stream of cash.

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers said. Students were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

The Landrys’ deception has tainted nearly everyone the school has touched, including students, parents and college admissions officers convinced of a myth.

The colleges “want to be able to get behind the black kids going off and succeeding, and going to all of these schools,” said Raymond Smith Jr., who graduated from T.M. Landry in 2017 and enrolled at N.Y.U. He said that Mr. Landry forced him to exaggerate his father’s absence from his life on his N.Y.U. application.

This portrait of T.M. Landry emerged from interviews with 46 people: parents of former Landry students; current and former students; former teachers; and law enforcement agents. The New York Times also examined student records and court documents showing that Mr. Landry and another teacher at the school had pleaded guilty to crimes related to violence against students, and police records that included multiple witness statements saying that Mr. Landry hit children. The Breaux Bridge Police Department closed the case after deciding it was outside of its jurisdiction.

“That dream you see on television, all those videos,” said Mr. Sassau’s mother, Alison St. Julien, “it’s really a nightmare.”


In 2013, Mr. Landry was sentenced to probation and attended an anger management program after pleading guilty to a count of battery. Despite the documentation, he insisted that he did not plead guilty or serve probation. Mr. Landry said that the victim was a student whose mother asked him to hit her child, and he said he had eased up on physical punishments.


Instead, he calls himself a “drill sergeant” or “coach,” and asks children to kneel before him to learn humility, for five minutes at most, Mr. Landry said.

That is not how the students have experienced it. Tyler Sassau, Mr. Sassau’s brother, said he can still feel the humiliation and smell the stench on his clothes from kneeling last year on a bathroom floor for nearly two hours.


In their defense, the Landrys touted the school’s ACT scores and high graduation and college enrollment statistics.


The students who navigated the Landrys’ system and made it to the nation’s top colleges now face their own quandaries.


T.M. Landry produced its first graduating class in 2013, and since then, 50 students have graduated, according to the school’s promotional materials. They have had mixed success in college.


For yet other Landry students, particularly those who spent multiple years at the school, the results after graduation have been disappointing. Some have withdrawn from college, or transferred to less rigorous programs.

Asja Jackson, whose Wesleyan University acceptance video also went viral, decided to leave this month after she said she fell into a depression over her first-semester struggles. She said she “froze and failed” her first chemistry tests and walked out of a biology exam. Her papers, she said, were “childish,” and she was too embarrassed to attend a writing workshop.

She studied and worked through the night, like she had done at T.M. Landry since eighth grade, but she just was not “catching it,” she said. She said she eventually stopped eating, talking to her friends, leaving her room or going to class.

“I didn’t understand why people around me were doing well, and I wasn’t,” said Ms. Jackson, who took the advice of her dean and started medical leave. “I couldn’t tell my friends because they would say, ‘How did you get into the school then?’ There were too many questions that I couldn’t answer.”


By taking no government funding, the school falls into a narrow category of educational institutions that the state does not regulate or approve, said Erin Bendily, the assistant superintendent of policy and governmental affairs at the Louisiana Department of Education. Some T.M. Landry diplomas say that students meet Louisiana state requirements, but the state does not recognize the diplomas.


Mr. Landry said he does not participate in state scholarship programs or accept any other funding because it would impair his ability to run the school in a “nontraditional” way.


The students cleaned the school, taught younger children, stayed into the night and attended year-round. Nearly every day they would call and respond “I love you” in several languages, and Mr. Landry said the word “kneel” meant “I love you” in his own language, “Mike-a-nese.”

Parents said that they were told to feed and clothe their children — and that Mr. Landry would take care of the rest. Apprehensive families were placated by videos of students solving tough math problems and being accepted to college. {snip}

After each viral video and media appearance, donors including wealthy executives and older Americans on fixed incomes sent money. T.M. Landry took in more than $250,000 in donations this year, a portion of which was earmarked by the donors for tuition assistance, according to records of the donations obtained by The Times.

But the school has not yet offered any scholarships, said Greg Davis, a T.M. Landry board member. Mr. Landry said donations were put into a general account, but he declined to say how the money was spent.

To many T.M. Landry families, tuition is not cheap — about $600 a month, or $7,200 annually. Mr. Landry’s annual salary has averaged about $86,000, according to four bankruptcy filings, which he says were driven by all of the tuition that he and his wife have covered.

The days start at T.M. Landry with a morning meeting, chants and pep talks, a ritual meant to “center” students and help them find their voice and confidence, Mr. Landry said.

The school is based loosely on a Montessori model that emphasizes mastery, so classes are optional, the Landrys said. Younger students described their education as learning from computer programs and YouTube videos. Instructors and textbooks are on hand, but the students teach one another. Math and English lessons are taught by the Landrys, who devote most of their attention to older students preparing for the ACT. Select students take dual-enrollment courses at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Adam Broussard, a Landry parent, noticed last fall that his 8-year-old, who had attended the school since he was 3, was writing “chicken scratch.” Mr. Broussard had been happy with the school — his older son had been admitted to Brown after two years at Landry — but he confronted Mr. Landry about his younger son’s progress. Mr. Landry responded that he did not teach sentence structure and just wanted students to love to write.

An independent assessment at Sylvan Learning Center revealed that Mr. Broussard’s younger son was performing two grade levels behind.

“I gave him my son for six years, almost every day, 12 months of the year,” Mr. Broussard said of Mr. Landry. “The longer these kids stayed there, the further behind they were.”

News of the Broussard boy’s low test scores spread last fall, and at least eight parents interviewed by The Times had their own students assessed. Of their 11 students, only two were performing at grade level, while the rest had fallen behind or made no progress. One junior was performing at a fourth-grade level in reading and math.

Dodie Thomas, a T.M. Landry grandmother, said she discovered that her 6-year-old granddaughter had never learned phonics and that she could not read. She played with Legos most of the day.


High school students took ACT practice tests day after day and sporadically attended classes. Bryson Sassau, who took the ACT three times, said that once he got to college, he realized an education that revolved around test preparation had ill-served him. “If it wasn’t on the ACT, I didn’t know it,” he said.

The Landrys recruited their own family members and parents of students to serve as instructors. They also pulled in staff from other schools by promising them that they would get rich through consulting jobs or owning one of their own T.M. Landry schools one day.


At least a half-dozen staff members resigned. Among those remaining was Keidrick Owens, who had been accused at his previous school of instructing older students to whip younger students with a belt. Last fall, Mr. Owens pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation.


More than a dozen students and staff members told The Times of pupils being humiliated in front of their peers and of racial groups being pitted against one another. Academically weak students were demeaned, and headstrong students were made to kneel.

More than a half-dozen students interviewed said they had witnessed Mr. Landry choking their schoolmates, and three students observed him slam others on desks. Another three students said they saw Mr. Landry place a child with autism in a closet.

Nyjal Mitchell, 16, said he wanted to be accepted by Mr. Landry because he dreamed of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He cleaned the school. He stayed later than others. He competed fiercely with his classmates. He said he even ignored attacks on his younger sister, Sanaa, who was bullied.



During the investigation, the Breaux Bridge police determined the episodes happened beyond city limits, so the case was referred to the local sheriff, whose office did not comment on its status.

Mr. Landry told students that he would ruin their futures if they left the school or told anyone what happened there, according to 20 current and former students interviewed and Terica Fuselier, a former teacher. They said that Mr. Landry threatened to alter or withhold their transcripts, or force them to enroll in a lower grade. Retaliation was a constant worry for students and teachers, Ms. Fuselier said.

Kelvin Simon said that when he found out the school wanted to submit a fraudulent transcript for his daughter’s application to Yale, he told Mr. Landry that he would not pay tuition until the school produced a real transcript. Mr. Landry refused, and Mr. Simon withdrew his daughter in October.

After Thanksgiving, Mr. Landry tried to bargain with him: In exchange for an accurate transcript, Mr. Simon would pay no tuition but keep his daughter in the school, according to texts reviewed by The Times. Mr. Landry also advised Mr. Simon to state that his income was below $65,000 on financial aid forms to qualify for a scholarship. Mr. Simon’s daughter chose to withdraw her application to Yale rather than apply through T.M. Landry, which she no longer trusted.

Mr. Landry also convinced students that he had special relationships with college deans, particularly at Harvard, and that he could use them to help students get into college — or to keep them out. He told students that college officers observed them through the school’s security cameras, and that the universities were so involved with the school that they set T.M. Landry’s tuition rates.


A half-dozen current and former students said that Mr. Landry told them to lie on their college applications. In exchange for students’ loyalty, Mr. Landry produced glowing transcripts, including what several students said were high marks in advanced coursework they never took.


The Landrys said that they have never falsified information on transcripts or college applications. Instead, Mr. Landry said, he encouraged students to “go deep” on their personal statements, and not to hide their struggles. He would edit the statements, he said, or tell them if he did not agree with their approach.

With the exception of federal financial aid forms, each parent interviewed said they never saw their child’s college application.


The first recorded Ivy League acceptance appeared to come from Brown in 2013. It was just one student in a cramped room, his classmate filming behind him. It had five comments and two shares.

In 2016, the first year T.M. Landry secured several Ivy League acceptances, the videos were of higher quality and included reaction shots from students in Ivy League sweatshirts.

“It became this thing where it was no longer about a family,” Mr. Sassau said. “It was more so about publicity.”

Students and parents noticed the biggest shift when T.M. Landry moved in early 2017. The school’s population grew as the Landrys began recruiting high-performing students from other schools, particularly those with high ACT scores. Visitors and cameras paraded through what had become a Potemkin village.

Students and teachers rehearsed in the days before a visitor came, often the same lessons — down to the math problems displayed on the board — that they had run for the last visitor. Students who came to school had to have pristine shoes, fresh hairdos and their scripts ready — name, grade, college aspiration and major.


Ms. Thomas, the grandmother, said she felt like the Landrys preyed on their own community. “We expect that of other people, but we had an African-American who was one of us and seemed to be doing right by us, and it was a sham,” she said.

After T.M. Landry hit a high of 180 students last year, parents say that enrollment plunged after a July meeting in which Mr. Landry called them a racial slur. Mr. Davis, the board member, blamed the drop on an “onslaught of negativity.”


The graduates face an uncertain future. Mr. Smith at N.Y.U. and Bryson Sassau at St. John’s both plan to take G.E.D. exams as a precaution after hearing that other Landry graduates left their colleges to return to Louisiana — only to find that their high school diplomas were not accepted at local colleges or for internships.


“Write whatever you want to write about us on the negative side,” Mr. Landry told a reporter. “But at the end of the day, my sister, if we got kids at Harvard every day, I’m going to fight for Harvard. Why is it O.K. that Asians get to Harvard? Why is it O.K. that white people get to Harvard?”

Mr. Landry raised his voice. He accused The Times of saying that it was wrong for T.M. Landry to want the best for its black students. He told his students that he would always fight for them. “We need the haters,” he said. “I welcome the haters.”