‘It Was Like Building a House on Water’: Louisiana School Behind Viral College Acceptance Videos Steeped in Controversy

Illustration for article titled ‘It Was Like Building a House on Water’: Louisiana School Behind Viral College Acceptance Videos Steeped in Controversy
Screenshot: The New York Times

If it seems too good to be true, it just might be. But I have to admit: This one really hurts.


You may remember the videos—a black high school student opening a college acceptance message, surrounded by peers; a flurry of smiles, congratulations and earnest elation. Harvard, Stanford, Wesleyan and more—the acceptances just kept rolling in. Unfortunately, there was a far more sinister story behind the school sending these hard working teens to prestigious universities.

Through extensive reporting, the New York Times has discovered that T.M. Landry High School was not the dream factory it seemed to be. The K-12 institution was fraught with financial and legal issues. The school and its owners have been accused of a laundry list of egregious behaviors, including lying about and exaggerating the tragic life circumstances of students in their college applications (unbeknownst to students), physical and verbal abuse, including making students kneel to “learn humility,” and opaqueness around the use of school funds.

From the Times:

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.…

In 2013, [co-founder Michael] 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.

“I don’t do that anymore,” he said….

[Student] Tyler Sassau…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.”

…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.

Parents said they were drawn in by the sense of “unity” Michael and Tracey Landry promised, writes the Times. They appealed to students with few resources by relating to them and offering the promise of giving the students something better.

Since the students’ stories went viral, donors sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school, but the money is largely unaccounted for and has not gone to promised scholarships.


The students who have recently left T.M. Landry for college have had varying degrees of success, but parents who have since had their kids assessed found that most were behind grade level.

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


“I feel like I’ve paid for a high-priced babysitter,” Ms. Thomas said.

While Landry pointed to student success with ACT prep, it seems like that’s all they focused on.


“If it wasn’t on the ACT, I didn’t know it,” Bryson Sassau told the Times.

Of seeing the glaring issues the school had, Bryson’s brother Tyler told the Times, “It was like building a house on water.”


The first year of college can be uniquely tough for black students, particularly those from low-income households, so coming out of such an unstable educational environment can’t have helped. And there are more and more cases of black students coming out and saying they don’t always get the resources they need when they are struggling, so I sincerely hope they find some way to get any help they may need.

My summary can’t really do justice to the absurd extent to which T.M. Landry mismanaged and outright failed students. Read Erica Green and Katie Benner’s report at the Times for more. This is really just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s terrifying.

Natalie Degraffinried is a senior editor for Kotaku.



Jesus Christ.... well I guess I shouldn’t complain too much about islamic school. Our teacher only threw a desk across the room. We were dickheads though so all we did is laugh.

This is what happens when there is a lack of oversight and accountability. I feel terrible for the students and the people who gave up heard earned dollars for this. How sad and disappointing.