LAFAYETTE, La. — T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a private school in Louisiana that garnered national attention for helping underprivileged and minority students attend elite colleges, is under federal investigation over its college admissions practices after disclosures that it cut corners and doctored applications, according to multiple people contacted by the F.B.I.
The F.B.I. opened the inquiry after an investigation by The New York Times detailed instances of transcript fraud and physical and emotional abuse at the school.
“THE WEEKLY” TV SERIES PREMIERE FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES ON FX AND HULU
Watch a preview of “The Weekly,” which debuts tonight. Multiple students at a small school in Louisiana accused the founder Michael Landry of abusing them and falsifying their transcripts. Mr. Landry denies the allegations and draws a line in a fiery speech.
In the fall, dozens of former students and teachers told The Times that T.M. Landry’s founders, Michael and Tracey Landry, doctored school transcripts with fake grades, nonexistent school clubs and fictitious classes. They said the couple embroidered their college application recommendation letters with fabricated stories of hardship that played on negative racial stereotypes.
The report also prompted the Louisiana State Police to open a local law enforcement investigation into more than a dozen allegations of physical abuse at T.M. Landry. That investigation is continuing.
While the scope of the Justice Department investigation is not known, the F.B.I. has discussed T.M. Landry’s college application practices as part of the inquiry, according to one person interviewed by federal investigators who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is not public.
The inquiry comes against the backdrop of a wide-ranging admissions scandal this year, which exposed how ultra-wealthy families bribed officials and faked elaborate athletic credentials to get their children into desirable colleges.
Despite the vast differences, the cases underscore just how important and competitive college admissions have become.
The F.B.I. said it does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations and declined to comment. The Landrys did not respond to a request for comment.
The Landrys and T.M. Landry’s board chairman, Greg Davis, have told parents and donors that they have done nothing wrong, and they are working to expand the school’s enrollment and repair its reputation. The school has told investigators that it has lost scores of students after the Times article, and that its graduating class dwindled to four, from 16.
In February, the Landrys abruptly broke the school’s lease and moved out of an old factory building after failing to meet fire safety codes. It now operates from a former skating rink, according to local news reports.
This spring, the school posted a solemn video on Facebook that showcased its remaining seniors, and the colleges that had admitted them: Emory University, Colgate University, Morehouse College, Bucknell University, St. John’s University, Providence College, Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Spring Hill College, Tulane University and Howard University. The video was a far cry from those that went viral in recent years, filled with clips of students celebrating and crying with joy as they learned they had been accepted to Ivy League schools.
Mr. Davis has also played up the findings of a 23-page report that summarized an internal investigation into the allegations published in The Times. In letters to donors, Mr. Davis said the report, which was released in April, “validates the academic outcomes” of T.M. Landry students.
The New Orleans law firm that Mr. Davis hired to conduct the internal inquiry, Couhig Partners, worked with Paul Pastorek, a former state superintendent of schools, who described Mr. Davis as a personal friend in his glowing summary of the inquiry.
T.M. Landry “appears to have been a genuine incubator for success, particularly for self-reliant students willing to put faith in a nontraditional education model,” Mr. Pastorek wrote.
“No school can be everything to every student, T.M. Landry included,” he wrote.
But Couhig described its own work as incomplete. It did not receive requested information from law enforcement agencies regarding abuse allegations at the school, including police reports and witness statements quoted by The Times. And it did not obtain publicly available court documents showing that Mr. Landry pleaded guilty in 2012 to a count of battery and was sentenced to probation for beating a student.
Couhig interviewed five current students, two alumni, six staff members and the Landrys.
While the firm concluded that T.M. Landry was a nurturing place for students and that the Landrys were well intentioned, much of the report confirmed the Times’s reporting, including instances of transcript fraud and an episode in which a child was placed in a trash can.
Couhig said that while it “did not uncover evidence of systemic fraud, some errors and discrepancies were apparent in records, as were apparent efforts to show the students in the best light possible.”
The firm found an instance in which classes on students’ transcripts did not match with their college applications, and another in which grades were incorrectly reported as A’s instead of B’s. The Landrys also reported on college applications that students had placed in the top 10 and 20 percent of their class, rankings that Mr. Landry essentially acknowledged were made up. One student’s transcript showed all “advanced” courses that the Landrys later said should have been “honors;”; they blamed it on a clerical error. And of nine college recommendation letters reviewed by Couhig, seven contained “large or small portions of identical representations.”
Mr. Landry and Mr. Pastorek said they would notify colleges that had received applications with discrepancies, according to the report.
The report concluded that the discrepancies appeared “largely insignificant, potentially unimportant to an admissions officer, and appear to be explained by mere sloppiness.”
Asked about the disparities, however, “Tracey and Mike Landry sometimes provided explanations that were contradictory,” the investigators wrote.
The couple did not agree on how they managed student transcripts. Ms. Landry said the school did not maintain them, but instead created and tailored them to suit a new school or a graduate, based on email exchanges between Mr. Landry and teachers or his own assessments.
Mr. Landry, however, told investigators that each student’s transcript was stored in an online account. When he could not produce much documentation of such a system, Mr. Landry told Couhig that the school “has a software person” working on a new transcript portal.
When Mr. Landry was asked about an instance in which one student’s grades were changed from B’s to A’s on the transcript submitted to colleges, he took responsibility for the discrepancy. He said that he entered the grades, and that “although he didn’t want to admit it, he needed glasses but refused to see the doctor,” the investigators wrote.
And the couple had differing explanations for the “substantially similar recommendation letters” used for multiple students. Ms. Landry said the letters had been shown to parents and students, who confirmed their accuracy. Mr. Landry said that the letters were not shown to parents or students, and that any similarities were a “mistake.”
Asked about the abuse allegations made by students and teachers, Mr. Landry acknowledged his guilty plea in 2012 — which he had denied to The Times — but said it was for spanking a student. According to court records, Mr. Landry was accused of choking, slapping and slamming a 12-year-old boy onto the floor, and then putting his foot on the child’s head. He is said to have dragged the student, made him kneel and forced him to eat rat feces.
In the investigation, Mr. Landry denied a 2017 case in which he was accused of choking and dragging a student and making him kneel. He acknowledged grabbing the student by his hoodie.
He admitted to placing a student in a trash can — he was alleged to have done this to a student with disabilities — but said it was part of an “Oscar the Grouch” game he played with students, rather than a punishment. He also said he had placed a student with special needs in a “large storage room” to calm him down, rather than to discipline him.
The internal investigation determined that “kneeling appears to have been normalized method of discipline or correction,” but that the students and the Landrys denied that Mr. Landry ever became violent with students. In the investigation, Mr. Landry said that wall-sits and kneeling were used to motivate students and prepare them for the challenges of the real world. Mr. Landry defended yelling at students, saying “he believes that students liked being yelled at, because it helped them reach their goals.”
Investigators said Mr. Landry had reformed a number of his educational practices and eliminated corporal punishment after the Times article was published.