“I just want to go to school” — Peeling Back the Layers of the T.M. Landry School Scandal

Anne Gunderson
Anne Gunderson
Published in
6 min readDec 7, 2018
Annie Flanagan for the New York Times

In a disturbing and eye-opening piece for the New York Times, Erica Green and Katie Benner expose the abuse and exploitation of Black families by Michael and Tracey Landry within T.M. Landry College Preparatory School. With painstaking detail, Green and Benner offer stories of underqualified teachers, doctored transcripts, fabricated college application essays, physical abuse, and broken dreams for the predominantly Black, low-income students who attended this private school in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. When taken together, these stories paint a picture of cult-like abuse and manipulation of a community. But throwing the Landry’s in jail, as many of the comments under the article suggests, would not begin to solve the issues illuminated in this piece because they are deeply embedded in our education system, higher education institutions, and American culture.

The Myth of School Choice

“Mr. 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.”

The debate about the privatization of k-12 education is hardly new, but as city, county, and state officials experiment with new ways of offering high quality learning opportunities to their children, it continues to be an important one to have. The Landry’s are neither the first nor the last of inexperienced entrepreneurs who try their hands at opening schools because they see an opportunity to innovate and test new models for education. These “social entrepreneurs” are emboldened by an increasingly common practice by cities to create space and incentives for individuals to open private and charter schools as an alternative to traditional neighborhood schools.

Like the families in Breaux Bridge, many parents turn to these alternatives options because their district-run neighborhood schools lack the resources to properly educate and prepare their children for college and career. As the existence of privately-run schools became increasingly common, researchers began to track the outcomes of these students compared to those left behind in publicly-run schools. While some privately-run schools show better results for their students, most students experience the same or worse outcomes than their counterparts. We also know that the students who are most likely to persistently experience negative outcomes in these schools are Black, Latino, and low-income.

So why do we continue to see privately-run schools pop up, especially in underserved communities, as replacements for traditional schools if they are simply perpetuating inequality? In the case of the Landrys, it is because it’s profitable. Parents are sold on a different model of schooling that promises better results, but the schools often lack any evidence for this claim. And while some schools (often the most expensive ones) truly do better serve their students,* others prey on the lack of options families have and place their students into a situation that is either comparable to or much worse than what they had in their traditional school. While the movement for privatization is often framed as a “school choice” model, families who lack the background, time, or money to understand and engage in the open-market process are left with the fewest choices: send their children to a neighborhood school that continues to lose funding or take a risk on the best sounding alternative.

The Exploitation of Black Pain

“His father paid child support and had never beat him nor his mother, unlike the abusive parent described [in his essay].”

College applications often ask students to describe a challenge they’ve had to overcome. Perhaps they’re testing resiliency or providing an opportunity for students to paint a clearer picture of themselves. But for Black students, it is implied that they should describe the worst moments of their lives for the entertainment of the admissions office. For them, it is never enough to be a brilliant, well-rounded student. It is expected, if not required, that if you are Black and applying to a competitive program that you have gone through some trauma that, for most, would seem insurmountable. For admissions staff, who are overwhelmingly white, these stories help reinforce their ideas of what it means to grow up Black and allows them to be the hero who scoops these poor, Black students out of the hood and into the Ivy League.

One problem is that not all Black kids are having the same experiences. For Black students who grew up in supportive households in uneventful neighborhoods, they may feel pressure to zoom in on and exaggerate a story that fits more neatly into the poor, Black narrative that colleges are expecting in order to increase their chance at acceptance. In Michael Landry’s case, he completely fabricated some of his students’ stories to make their applications more interesting, thus increasing the odds that they’ll land in a newsworthy university.

The other, much worse problem is that some Black students have experienced horrible things, and more often than not, they haven’t received the proper care to cope with those experiences. College applications then reopen these wounds when they implicitly ask Black students to relive past traumas for the sake of writing a compelling story. This is not to say that non-Black students have not experienced trauma and written about it on their college applications. But Black students in particular are less likely to benefit from legacy admission points, uniquely high test scores, and transcripts from high schools with exceptional reputations. As a result, they are forced to rely much more heavily on the essay portion to present a student who has had to survive more than others to impress a set of admissions officers who do not share those experiences.

The Dehumanization of Black Children

“[Landry] calls himself a “drill sergeant” or “coach,” and asks children to kneel before him to learn humility.”

The most disturbing parts of the T.M. Landry story are the details of physical abuse. Michael Landry brazenly admitted to choking, hitting, and dragging students as a legitimate form of discipline. His justification was all too familiar: this is how Black students need to be treated in order to learn and to be prepared for the harshness of the world. Breaking Black children in order to build them into a person the world will respect is an all too common belief held by Black and white adults alike.

This belief plays out in school disciplinary practices all the time, especially for Black children with developmental delays or social-emotional challenges. For example, allegations of exceedingly strict disciplinary policies have come out of the Chicago’s Noble Charter Schools that boasts a high college-acceptance rate while pushing out more challenging students, often low-income students of color. The perception of Black children as being older than they are and, thus, deserving of harsh punishment for childlike behavior contributes to excess forms of punishment, like physical abuse. There is also a long-held belief dating back centuries that Black people in general, and Black women and girls in particular, do not feel pain as acutely as non-Black people.

When we find ourselves shocked and appalled at individual stories of abuse on Black children, like Michael Landry’s disciplinary practices, it is easy and comforting to believe that it is unique to the perpetrator. But the implicit beliefs and biases we hold about Black children have created universal standards for how we interact with and mold these children into adults. So while Michael Landry should be held accountable for his actions, it is important to understand that his behavior is just a symptom of deep, systemic racism.

Looking Beyond T.M. Landry

It should be clear at this point that sending the Landrys to jail will not solve the problems outlined above. There should absolutely be consequences for the Landrys, but my hope is that those who read the story of T.M. Landry College Prep see a larger indictment of systems that degrade and oppress Black children and families. It should be an indictment of an increasingly privatized education system that perpetuates the inequalities of our public education system. It should be an indictment of universities who believe that Black students are only as valuable as the trauma they’ve experienced (and are believed to have experienced). Finally, and most importantly, it should be an indictment of those of us who fail to extend grace and patience, love and gentleness, to Black children because we believe they are undeserving of it.

*Please note that high test scores and college acceptance rates do not necessarily mean that a school has a better model for educating students. When assigning this label, you should also consider which students are accepted into the school and persist to graduation.