Bryson Sassau’s application would inspire any college admissions officer.
A founder of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School described him as a “bright, energetic, compassionate and genuinely well-rounded” student, whose alcoholic father had beaten him and his mother and had denied them money for food and shelter. His transcript “speaks for itself,” the founder, Tracey Landry, wrote, but Sassau should also be lauded for founding a community service program, the Dry House, to help the children of abusive and alcoholic parents. He took four years of honors English, the application said, was a baseball MVP and earned high honors in the Mathematics Olympiad.
The narrative earned Sassau acceptance to St. John’s University in New York. There was one problem: None of it was true.
“I was just a small piece in a whole fathom of lies,” Sassau said.
T.M. Landry has become a viral Cinderella story, a small school run by Michael Landry, a teacher and former salesman, and his wife, Tracey 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 8 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 students in kindergarten through 12th grade 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<em>. </em>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 NYU. He said Michael Landry forced him to exaggerate his father’s absence from his life on his NYU application.
“It’s a good look,” these colleges “getting these bright, highflying, came-from-nothing-turned-into-something students,” Smith said.
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 Michael 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 Landry hit children. The Breaux Bridge Police Department closed the case after deciding it was outside its jurisdiction.
“That dream you see on television, all those videos,” said Sassau’s mother, Alison St. Julien, “it’s really a nightmare.”
In an interview with The Times, the Landrys denied falsifying transcripts and college applications, but Michael Landry admitted that he hit students and could be rough. “Oh, I yell a lot,” he said. He goads black and white students to compete against one another because that is how the real world works, he said.
In 2013, 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. Landry said the victim was a student whose mother asked him to hit her child, and he said he had eased up on physical punishments.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he said.
Instead, he calls himself a “drill sergeant” or “coach,” and asks children to kneel before him to learn humility, for five minutes at most, Landry said.
That is not how the students have experienced it. Tyler Sassau, Bryson 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.
“I wasn’t going to get up without asking him because if I did, I could’ve got something worse,” he said. “I could barely stand when I got up.”
In their defense, the Landrys touted the school’s ACT scores and high graduation and college enrollment statistics.
“We get pushed under the microscope, or under the dagger,” Michael Landry said, because “it had been just black kids going. Society kept saying all these negative things about us because it was just easy to beat this broken-down school.”
The students who navigated the Landrys’ system and made it to the nation’s top colleges now face their own quandaries.
“I really believe that we all thought we were doing the right thing at the time, and didn’t have a choice,” Smith said. “It was a cultish mentality.<em>”</em>
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.
Some alumni, especially those who spent only a short time at T.M. Landry, have been successful. Bryson Sassau did well in his classes at St. John’s, although he had to quit some advanced science and math courses. Smith also did well, but with debts mounting had to drop out after his freshman year. Another Landry graduate said he feels at home at Brown in his junior year, has maintained good grades and was recently accepted into a program that prepares students to pursue a doctoral degree.
The student in the most viral video, who spent only a short time at Landry, is in his first semester at Harvard. Other Landry students have been admitted to Harvard over the past three years, but the university declined to provide information on their status.
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 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.”
At least five T.M. Landry families spoke with local law enforcement, and two more contacted the local education authorities for aid, but little changed.
Ashlee McFarlane, a lawyer at Gerger Khalil & Hennessy in Houston, said dozens of parents, students and staff have left the school and are reaching out to her for help.
“Above all,” McFarlane said, “they want to protect their children and to finally be heard.”
<strong>‘He got us on the unity’</strong>
Michael Landry, 49, and Tracey Landry, 50, say that education lifted them from their impoverished childhoods in Breaux Bridge, near Lafayette. Tracey Landry got a nursing degree. Michael Landry got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, which was later renamed the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He was a salesman and, from 2002 through 2004, a certified teacher.
The couple started T.M. Landry in 2005 as a home-school for their son and five children. The early results were not good. Two of the six students ended up in prison, Michael Landry said. But the couple continued to recruit students from area churches, telling parishioners that teaching was their calling.
T.M. Landry, now an unaccredited private school, settled last year into a bare-bones factory building that Michael Landry has compared to his students: abandoned and rundown, but loved by him.
By taking no government funding, the school falls into a narrow category of educational institutions the state does not regulate or approve, said Erin Bendily, 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.
“So what, we’re not accredited,” Michael Landry said at a recruiting event this year. “Three years in a row, Harvard took us. Stanford has taken us.”
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.
Over the years, Landry has appealed to parents whose children were struggling, bored or ignored in their public and private schools. He told them that his school had special programs for students with disabilities. Parents said he took a deep interest in their lives, called their children “baby girl” and “baby boy,” and shared personal stories about his own family members who had struggles with drugs or had been in prison
Landry used to tout the school as created for “black troublemakers.” As it became more prominent, it started to appeal to local doctors, paralegals and small-business owners. Some white and Asian families also enrolled their children.
Black families thought the Landrys were fighting to give their children a fair shot in a world that often believed they were only capable of being sports stars. Landry’s mantra: “Why play for a team when you can own the team?”
“The fact that he was black, I was like, ‘Man, he’s going to uplift these kids,’” said Doresa Barton, whose three children were enrolled at Landry until this year.
“He got us on the unity,” said Letarchia Lewis,a parent, and he capitalized on “a disadvantage that you know we are all a part of.”
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 Landry said the word “kneel” meant “I love you” in his own language, “Mike-a-nese.”
Parents said they were told to feed and clothe their children — and Landry would take care of the rest. Apprehensive families were placated by videos of students solving tough math problems and being accepted to college. “When you see these videos,” Lewis said, “you want that.”
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. 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. Landry’s annual salary has averaged about $86,000, according to four bankruptcy filings, which he says were driven by all the tuition he and his wife have covered.
<strong>‘Building a house on water’</strong>
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, Michael 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 at 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.” Broussard had been happy with the school — his older son had been admitted to Brown after two years at Landry — but he confronted Michael Landry about his younger son’s progress. 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 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,” Broussard said of 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.
“I feel like I’ve paid for a high-priced baby sitter,” Thomas said.
Middle and high school students said they mostly completed worksheets that were recycled every few weeks. They came to recognize the failures in the school.
“It was like building a house on water,” Tyler Sassau said.
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.
Tanika Williams was hired to teach philosophy last year. She took pride in her lessons, but said that because students were not required to attend class, some showed up infrequently.
“I would look at kids literally walking around all day,” she said.
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, Owens pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation.
<strong>‘He had my son broken’</strong>
When Michael Landry’s booming voice would ring through the school — “I’M GETTING MAD!” — students scurried to get out of his path.
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 Landry choking their schoolmates, and three students observed him slam others on desks. Another three students said they saw Landry place a child with autism in a closet.
Nyjal Mitchell, 16, said he wanted to be accepted by 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.
“I just clicked with the idea of doing something with my life,” Mitchell said. “I had the idea that the only way that would happen was through the school.”
Mitchell and his parents filed complaints against Landry in February 2017 with the Breaux Bridge police, detailing what they said were three instances of assault against Nyjal — choking, shoving and dragging. In the family statements to the police, Nyjal Mitchell reported that he also saw Landry choke three other students, including one with autism.
The police conducted an investigation into the alleged assaults, which witnesses said took place from late 2016 to January 2017. The inquiry included witness statements from three students and one teacher. “Nyjal attempted to remove Mike’s hand due to him turning red,” one student said, according to the police report.
In another episode cited in the report, Landry dragged Mitchell by his hoodie across a concrete floor, put his foot on his throat and made him kneel. Mitchell said he believed the punishment was a “normal” part of being a T.M. Landry student.
“He had my son broken,” said his mother, Mary Mitchell.
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.
<strong>‘Information out of thin air’</strong>
Landry told students 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 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, Fuselier said.
Megan Malveaux, 16, said she believes she received a mediocre transcript from T.M. Landry because she chose to leave the school. An original and a revised document, which had different birth dates, include courses she never took.
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 Landry he wouldn’t pay tuition until the school produced a real transcript. Landry refused, and Simon withdrew his daughter in October.
After Thanksgiving, Landry tried to bargain with him: In exchange for an accurate transcript, Simon would pay no tuition but keep his daughter in the school, according to texts reviewed by The Times. Landry also advised Simon to state that his income was below $65,000 on financial aid forms to qualify for a scholarship. Simon’s daughter chose to withdraw her application to Yale rather than apply through T.M. Landry, which she no longer trusted.
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 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.
“Alleged statements made by Mr. Landry seriously misrepresent his relationship, and that of the T.M. Landry School, with the Harvard College admissions office,” said Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman. Dartmouth and Stanford said that they had no role in the operations of T.M. Landry. St. John’s, Wesleyan, Cornell and NYU also said that they had no special relationship with T.M. Landry. Claims of observing the school through security cameras were absurd, the colleges said.
“We will look into the issues raised by this reporting,” said John H. Beckman, a spokesman at NYU.
A half-dozen current and former students said Landry told them to lie on their college applications. In exchange for students’ loyalty, Landry produced glowing transcripts, including what several students said were high marks in advanced coursework they never took.
“He was pulling all of the information out of thin air,” Bryson Sassau said.
Only this week did Sassau see the application that the Landrys submitted to St. John’s on his behalf. He was stunned and angry about the fabrications. Sassau’s father paid child support and had never beat him nor his mother, unlike the abusive parent described.
Sassau had never started an organization called the Dry House — he had never even heard of it — and had never taken the classes or earned the accolades listed.
A recommendation from his English teacher praising his debate skills twice referred to another student.
“They didn’t even care about me enough to have the decency to change my name,” Sassau said.
The Landrys said they have never falsified information on transcripts or college applications. Instead, Michael 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 didn’t agree with their approach.
With the exception of federal financial aid forms, each parent interviewed said they never saw their child’s college application.
<strong>‘The perfect student’</strong>
The joy was real.
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,’’ 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<em>, </em>college aspiration and major.
The pressure to paint a positive picture of the school continued even after students left T.M. Landry. When Jackson reached out to the Landrys to share her struggles at Wesleyan, she said they encouraged her to “stay on the path.” If not for that advice, she said would have left school earlier.
“They kept telling me that I had to stick it out, and show my school that T.M. Landry is for real,” she said.
<strong>‘I was so brainwashed’</strong>
Some students still cry when they discuss their experiences at T.M. Landry.
“I really should have said something,” Megan Malveaux said. “This isn’t what I wanted my life to be or what I want it to be about. I didn’t want to be part of the lies, and watching kids be abused and not do anything. I was so brainwashed.”
Parents have been consumed with guilt.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Doresa Barton said. “You always like to think you would never let anything happen to your children.”
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 Michael Landry called them a racial slur. Davis, the board member, blamed the drop on an “onslaught of negativity.”
Several parents are paying for tutoring or have enrolled their children in home schools to help them catch up.
Nyjal Mitchell is among several students who never received a transcript. Last year, he was required to take ninth- and 10th-grade classes at his public high school. This year he is doing 10th- and 11th-grade coursework.
“To do all that work and still end up behind, it’s kind of a slap in the face,” he said. He still wants to attend MIT.
“I just want people to know what I went through,” he said.
Lewis, a Landry parent of three, said that her son Dawson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, left Landry for another private school this fall, and that he had finally found peers who embraced his quirkiness. Teachers didn’t make fun of him for having encopresis, a condition where he soils himself when he is nervous, that had earned him the nickname “Mr. Smelly Man” from Michael Landry.
But Dawson had to leave his new school after about two months because administrators there never received his transcript from the Landrys.
“Their love for my child went as far as my wallet would go for them,” Lewis said. “All there is to prove that they were at T.M. Landry is check stubs.”
The Landrys said they only withhold transcripts when families do not pay their tuition. They declined to address any specific families or situations.
<strong>‘I just want to go to school’</strong>
This month, the Landrys announced that they would open another school in Opelousas, about 45 minutes from Breaux Bridge. The announcement rattled T.M. Landry families.
“How do you look your son in the face every day and tell him that this person is going to get what’s coming to him, or he’s going to get his punishment, when every other day you see something else that this person is doing, or they’re on to another school, or he’s on TV?” Mary Mitchell said.
The graduates face an uncertain future. Smith at NYU and Sassau at St. John’s both plan to take their GED 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.
Smith now works in the emergency room at a hospital in Louisiana. He believes he’ll go back to college, but he worries about other students, particularly his younger brother, who is a student at Landry.
“I don’t want this to keep happening to kids,” he said. “I don’t want parents to keep putting their kids in this abusive situation.”
Sassau had a severe seizure because of his epilepsy on campus in the spring, and St. John’s allowed him to take medical leave. He is set to return in January.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sassau said. “I just want to go to school.”
Jackson said that she hopes to enroll at a college in the South, closer to home.
Just before Thanksgiving, The Times went to the school to see if the Landrys would take part in a follow-up interview. The couple agreed, but entered the conference room with about two dozen students who fielded many of the questions.
“Write whatever you want to write about us on the negative side,” Michael 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 OK that Asians get to Harvard? Why is it OK that white people get to Harvard?”
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.”
He raised his arms on either side of him, forming a cross.
“My name is Michael Landry. I am the reformer,” he said. “They killed Jesus Christ because he could save the world. I say to myself, who are you compared to Jesus? Nothing! So I stick my arms out and say nail me to the cross if that’s what you want.”
Landry slipped into a familiar call-and-response with his students.
“In English,” he commanded them.
“I love you,” they said.
“In Mandarin,” he yelled.
“Wo ai ni,” they said.
“Ya lyublyu vas!”
“Kneel,” they shouted.