T.M. Landry, a school in Louisiana, gained national attention through viral videos of its students, predominantly black and working class, getting into the nation’s most elite colleges.
But a New York Times investigation uncovered a darker reality about the school and its founders, Michael and Tracey Landry.
Here are six major takeaways of the investigation.
T.M. Landry prepared transcripts filled with falsehoods, and students say Mr. Landry encouraged them to lie in their application essays.
A half-dozen current and former students said Mr. Landry told them to lie on their college applications.
“What he wanted was the grimiest, lowdown thing,” said Bryson Sassau, a former student.
Only this week did Mr. Sassau see the application that the Landrys submitted to St. John’s University on his behalf. He was stunned and angry about the fabrications. Mr. Sassau’s father paid child support and had never beat him or his mother, unlike the abusive parent described.
Another former student, 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 two birth dates, include courses she never took.
In an interview with The Times, the Landrys denied falsifying transcripts and college applications.
T.M. Landry created a culture of fear and abuse, while promising a path to success.
The Landrys 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.
Mr. 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’s how the real world works, he said.
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, Mr. Landry insisted he did not plead guilty or serve probation. He 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.
“I don’t do that anymore,” he said.
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.
The school’s directors recruited heavily from the local black community with a promise they could get students into the nation’s top universities.
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. Mr. 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 capitalized on “a disadvantage that you know we are all a part of.”
Viral videos of the students were used as recruiting tools.
Apprehensive families were placated by videos of children solving tough math problems and being accepted to college. “When you see these videos,” Ms. 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.
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. To paint a positive picture, students who came to school had to have pristine shoes, fresh hairdos and their scripts ready — name, grade, college aspiration and major.
The Landrys claimed to have special relationships with elite universities around the country. The schools denied it.
Mr. Landry 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.
“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 N.Y.U. also said that they had no special relationship with 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 N.Y.U.
Some graduates of T.M. Landry fared well in college. Others struggled.
Some alumni, especially those who spent only a short time at T.M. Landry, were successful. Mr. Sassau did well in his classes at St. John’s, although he had to drop some advanced science and math courses.
He plans to take a G.E.D. exam as a precaution after hearing that other Landry graduates left their colleges to return to Louisiana — only to find that their Landry diplomas were not accepted at local colleges or for internships.
One N.Y.U. student also did well, but with debts mounting, he 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.
For 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.
“I didn’t understand why people around me were doing well, and I wasn’t,” said Asja Jackson, who attended Wesleyan after T.M. Landry. “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.”