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

How Viral Videos Masked a Louisiana Prep School’s Problems | NYT News
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    A high school student in front of a laptop,
    surrounded by classmates,
    dressed in college gear.
    A moment of suspense,
    and then …
    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.
    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."
    "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.
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