Aggrieved parents of former T.M. Landry College Prep School students are aghast that Michael Landry, once convicted of abusing a student, continues to direct and teach at the Breaux Bridge school amid new abuse allegations.

Landry, the founder of the school, pleaded guilty to simple battery in 2013 after being accused of beating a student at the school. Dozens of others have come forward to say they too suffered physical and psychological abuse at T.M. Landry or personally witnessed it. The school’s board of directors supports Landry, so he will stay in his position for the time being.

Parents have unsuccessfully sought intervention from state child welfare and education authorities, who say the school operates beyond their reach. Officials point to laws restricting who can be investigated for child abuse, as well as laws providing autonomy to Louisiana schools such as T.M. Landry that don’t seek Board of Elementary and Secondary Education credentials.

As one of thousands of “non-approved” schools in Louisiana, T.M. Landry can employ whomever it pleases as teachers. Abuse allegations jeopardize teacher certifications, and thus employment, for those working in approved schools, officials say.

More than 18,000 students in Louisiana attend non-approved institutions like T.M. Landry, according to state data.

“It’s frustrating for the parents because it does seem like these agencies who are in charge of caring for and ensuring the safety of the children are abdicating responsibility,” said Ashlee McFarlane, a lawyer working with more than two dozen families of former T.M. Landry students.

That leaves law enforcement as the only recourse for parents who believe their children have been harmed at non-approved schools. Mary Mitchell says that hasn't helped her. Nearly two years ago, she complained to Breaux Bridge Police that Landry had choked her son, and multiple eyewitnesses supplied statements to investigators.

Four months later, having heard nothing about the case, Mitchell took to Facebook for advice.

“What happens when an assault took place between a minor and adult and there are witnesses of the incident, you’ve gone to local PD and nothing is happening,” Mitchell wrote in a post. “What’s the next step anyone???”

City police referred Mitchell’s case to the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office, which opted not to bring charges for reasons it has declined to explain. The case was reopened after allegations of physical abuse, transcript fraud and a culture of psychological manipulation at the school surfaced in a Nov. 30 article in The New York Times.

State Police are now investigating Mitchell’s case and more than 10 new ones reported to law enforcement following the Times article. Last year, long before the media interest in the case, Mitchell said she tried to get help from every state authority she could think of.

“I called everybody,” Mitchell said. “There was a loophole for every single thing because of the way this school was set up.”

State Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said former T.M. Landry parents have called him "wanting to know where they can go for relief." Mills said the school appears to lack oversight and his staff is researching possible legislation to address that. 

"I am researching all our options and where the shortfalls may be in the regulatory sense," Mills said. "I really want a piece of legislation that maybe is addressing where this place is falling through the cracks."

 ‘Not obligated to even speak to us’

The allegations raised in the Times article, and also by parents, have upended T.M. Landry’s carefully cultivated image as an innovative, non-traditional and nationally acclaimed school that puts disadvantaged students on track for elite college educations.

The image wasn’t the reality Adam Broussard said he discovered last year when his son tested far below grade level in reading and math. Evaluations showed his son did not have a learning disability, Broussard said.

Broussard pulled his son from the school at the end of the year, and he is now receiving private instruction with a group of other former T.M. Landry students to catch up to his grade level.

“If you could see his work then versus now, it’s just a world of difference,” Broussard said. “He’s writing paragraphs now whereas before he could not write a sentence.”

Some T.M. Landry graduates have indeed been accepted to well-reputed colleges, but McFarlane, the lawyer working with former T.M. Landry families, said those among her clients who advanced to higher education attended T.M. Landry for short periods, after doing well at other schools.

T.M. Landry is ineligible for state diploma recognition, as well as public funding, because it does not seek state approval of its education program. But T.M. Landry and others like it still meet rudimentary standards to qualify as “schools” for the sake of mandatory attendance laws.

Any “adequate physical plant” where a teacher provides 180 days of instruction per year is considered a school in state law. The law is silent on what constitutes adequate space, and anyone can be a teacher.

Most of the approximately 6,500 non-approved schools in Louisiana have enrollments in the low single digits, suggesting they are home schools that have opted not to seek approval as home-study programs, which is allowable under state guidelines.

More than 100 non-approved schools have enrollments of 10 or more, however, with some in the hundreds. The total enrollment at these schools exceeds 5,500, nearly one-third of all those studying non-approved curricula, according to The Advocate’s analysis of state data.

“In some cases you are talking about a parent or an individual that teaches out of their home,” said Erin Bendily, an assistant state school superintendent. “But then you also have, within that same category, actual schools like T.M. Landry and others, that have a school facility where parents send their children and pay tuition.”

Non-approved schools are required only to report enrollment totals to state authorities, who then turn that information over to child welfare and attendance officers in every public school district. The officers, who are school district employees, are mandated to investigate truancy cases, which includes verifying attendance at non-approved schools, Bendily said.

Part of the officers’ job in verifying school attendance is determining whether students are being educated, even when the government has no say in what they learn. That necessitates delicate subjective judgments at non-approved schools, Bendily said.

“Does it just mean you have to be teaching the four core subjects? Does it mean you look at the level of quality? The law doesn’t say that,” Bendily said. “The child welfare and attendance officer doesn’t get to go out and, for example, make a judgment based on what curriculum is being used.”

Officers are nevertheless duty-bound to report to judges when they find children aren’t being educated, Bendily said, and from there children can be compelled to attend approved schools.

The officers’ mandate appears to allow, at the very least, a limited measure of government interaction with non-approved schools. But “that’s not how it plays out on the ground,” said Frederick Wiltz, the St. Martin welfare and attendance supervisor.

Wiltz said he typically only visits schools where he can determine if the curriculum matches what was submitted to the Department of Education.

Non-approved schools “are not obligated to open the door for me, and I can’t force my way in,” Wiltz said. “They are not obligated to even speak to us.”

Can't see video below? Click here.

'Narrow line of business' in child welfare 

Children and Family Services maintains it can only investigate abuse allegations against “caretakers,” as defined in state law. This includes parents and guardians, licensed day care employees and tutors, among others, but not school employees, according to the department.

At the same time, virtually every type of school employee is legally required to report suspected abuse. The department has a hotline for such “mandatory reporters,” but the department will not investigate abuse at a school unless the alleged abuser meets the definition of a caretaker, said Deputy Secretary Terri Ricks.

“We will likely tell them this is a case for law enforcement, or we will pass it along ourselves,” Ricks said. “We would expect the laws related to schools would kick in, the civil and criminal laws related to battery.”

Some parents wonder why T.M. Landry employees aren't considered "tutors," which are not defined in the caretaker law. This is a quirk of the Louisiana civil code, which uses the term to describe what are commonly understood as legal guardians. 

"The law might find someone needs to be legally in charge of another human," Ricks said. "It's definitely not a math tutor."

Children and Family Services’ stance on what it can and cannot investigate is not universally understood in the education community. Bendily and Wiltz both said they believed Children and Family Services is the agency that investigates abuse on school property.

Ricks acknowledged that her department needs to “continue to figure out how to communicate to everybody this narrow line of business we have in child welfare.”

“We want the general public to know they can call DCFS,” Ricks said. “But I do think it’s true many people may not realize exactly what we do.”

Child protective services can't help

The T.M. Landry board has hired Couhig Partners, a New Orleans law firm, to look into the allegations as the State Police investigation proceeds, but it chose to not place Landry on administrative leave in the meantime. The board chairman, Greg Davis, whose two grandchildren attend T.M. Landry, said the board's decision to allow Landry to continue teaching was based on discussions with current parents.

“I’ve spoken to most of the parents. They all say that what’s in that (New York Times) article does not reflect their experience," Davis said. "There is nothing in my experience that would say there's anything going on here at the T.M. Landry school that's consistent with what's in that article."

The Times interviewed 46 former T.M. Landry students, parents and teachers, as well as current students and law enforcement agents. Davis said he had not spoken with any of those alleging abuse, and would leave that to investigators. 

The Times article alluded to Landry’s previously unreported guilty plea for simple battery, but subsequently released St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office reports showed the victim was a 12-year-old T.M. Landry student. Landry was accused in that case of choking, slapping and whipping the student with a belt. He pleaded guilty to simple battery and received one year of probation.  

Asked about the appropriateness of Landry continuing to teach in light of the guilty plea, Davis said Landry and Landry's wife Tracey, a co-founder of the school, had provided "a nurturing environment for our students."

"I can attest to that as a grandparent," Davis said. "Many other parents who have children attending school here have the same opinion. As far as we are concerned, the Landrys are exactly where we want them to be."

Michael and Tracey Landry have not responded to several calls and emails from The Advocate. 

Broussard, who pulled his son from T.M. Landry for academic reasons, is among those making new abuse allegations. Broussard said his 9-year-old son came forward after watching a television news report on the allegations mentioned in the Times article. The boy was afraid to confide in his parents sooner because he was afraid of what Landry might do, Broussard said.

“He said he felt comfortable saying something because people finally know how they are,” Broussard said.

Broussard’s son accused Landry of assaulting him three times last school year, according to Broussard’s Dec. 3 written statement to Breaux Bridge Police, which turned it over to State Police.

Landry allegedly dragged Broussard’s son by the collar in one incident, and in another he shoved the child onto his knees, causing him to fall chest first onto concrete, according to Broussard’s written statement. In another incident, Broussard’s son said Landry used a belt to whip him and several other children on the hands.

Broussard said he called the Department of Children and Family services, in addition to reporting to police. The staffer he spoke with was sympathetic, Broussard said, but he hung up feeling cheated.

“She said it’s just a shame they can’t do anything,” Broussard said. “I’m a taxpaying citizen in the State of Louisiana. I have a child in the state of Louisiana. And Child Protective Services said they can’t do anything to help.”

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.