How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems | NYT News

How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems | NYT News

August 24, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


A high school student in
front of a laptop, surrounded by classmates, dressed in college gear. A moment of
suspense, and then … [Cheers] It was a scene repeated
over and over again. Students from one
Louisiana private school opening acceptance letters
from their dream colleges. The videos often went viral. This one, of a
16-year-old student getting accepted
to Harvard, racked up over
8 million views. [Cheers] But there was more
to the story. Students told us many of
their college applications included false information
provided by their school’s administrators. And the cheers in
these videos covered up an ugly reality of abuse
and intimidation at T.M. Landry College Prep. “Abusing emotionally, physically. We realized, O.K.
something’s not right. Everything is wrong
with T.M. Landry.” Sixteen-year-old Megan Malveaux
is a former student. “There was this little kid, he was probably
about 7 or 8, and he was acting up in class. Mr. Mike, he had
took the kid by the neck and
picked him up and body slammed
him on the table.” Mr. Mike is Michael Landry. He and his wife, Tracey,
founded the school. It costs up to
$725 a month to attend, and received
national attention for its 100 percent
college acceptance rate. In various TV interviews, they pitched a message
of hope and hard work. “We’re changing society. We’re giving hope.” “Go big or go home.” The Landrys denied
falsifying transcripts and college applications, and any allegations of abuse. But they do maintain that
physical punishments are doled out because they love their students
and treat them like family. The Landrys told the
story of young black kids from a
working-class community, who overcame systemic barriers
to achieve success. “Doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter where
you’ve been in life, you can do it.” And the videos were crucial
in promoting that message. Parents say they had no idea
what was going on. “All the videos, I was excited for
all the kids, because they’re kids. Little black kids like us can go to Harvard, Yale.” “I mean, the good
talking he did made you realize, well, you’re
kid needs to go to that school. If you want the best
for your kid, you need to send them
to T.M. Landry. You know, you speak
to anybody in Louisiana, they’re telling you.” When the cameras were off, students say they were
pitted against each other, interrogated and humiliated. Students say they were also
physically punished. Sometimes they would
be forced to kneel on rocks, rice or
hot concrete, for hours. “I remember the first time
I was put on my knees was because he gave me
a test and I failed it.” A New York Times investigation
found that behind the scenes, the Landrys filled out
transcripts incorrectly to reflect classes the kids
say they never took and grades they never earned. “My transcript was
messed up because he messed up my birthday
because apparently I was born the year
my mom was. He put classes that I never
even took, like chemistry.” Students told The Times
that the Landrys told them to lie on their
college applications about growing up in
households marked by poverty, crime
and drug addiction. If they refused,
they say the Landrys threatened to
do it for them. A look back
reveals clues about Michael Landry’s
temperament, like in this recent pitch that became a
passionate outburst. [Bangs fist] “Excuse me, ma’am.” But this was a rare glimpse
at his frightening tone. The Landrys produced
a steady stream of promotional material, painting a positive picture
of an unconventional school. “T.M. Landry is
a no-frills school.” “No classrooms,
no walls, no books.” “Teachers without
certifications. Classes with no
teachers at all.” After the acceptance
videos started gaining traction in 2016, press from
around the country started showing up at
their door. “Walking around campus, we saw that weird
Landry style.” Outsiders marveled
at how the Landrys could make the
impossible happen. “So, O.K. this is incredible.” “The results speak
for themselves.” “Go Landrys —” “They have figured out
the secret sauce —” “They really have.” In media interviews, they
called themselves a family — “Family first —” that pushed kids to their academic limits. “They will make it.
No is not an option. Failure is not an option.” Former students
and parents told us that for visits
like these, students would be forced to
spend days rehearsing what to say to reporters. “I plan to attend
Harvard University.” “Harvard University.” “Stanford University.” “Cornell.” “Brown.” “We have this trig book,
which is like from M.I.T., so we just basically
teach each other.” For the high school students, there was a
singular focus: practicing for the ACT. For younger kids: a loose and
insufficient curriculum that has left many
grade levels behind. When their methods
were questioned, the Landrys were quick
to dismiss any suspicions. “Some of them sound
a little brainwashed.” “When it’s a black kid and it’s strictly education, something’s wrong
with that kid.” “The reason why
I never said nothing was because I
was scared. Because they were getting
all of this attentions from news channels. They were in articles. I was so brainwashed and I was thinking,
he can’t do no wrong. But as you can see
since I’m sitting here, I was all wrong.” Now, many in the
T.M. Landry community say they feel swindled out of
time, money, and ironically, an education.