A bizarre case from Florida (of course!) has been settled after a local school board approved a $600,000 settlement with the families of three students who died after being hypnotized by their high school principal. Each of the families will receive a payment of $200,000 in the case.
According to the Herald Tribune, Dr. George Kenney, former principal of North Port High School in Sarasota, entered a plea of “no contest” to practicing hypnotherapy without a license, which is a misdemeanor, in 2012. While there is no indication that the hypnosis led directly to the students’ deaths, their families still chose to sue the school district in a civil case. Under Florida law, they couldn’t sue Kenney directly, so the suit was brought against the school district.
The attorney representing the families of the three students, Damian Mallard, said that the main purpose of the suit was to hold the school district accountable. He told the Herald Tribune,
It’s something they [the families] will never get over. It’s probably the worst loss that can happen to a parent is to lose a child, especially needlessly because you had someone who decided to perform medical services on kids without a license. He altered the underdeveloped brains of teenagers, and they all ended up dead because of it.
An independent investigation in 2011 revealed that Kenney had hypnotized more than 70 students, faculty, and staff members over a five year period. There was apparently no nefarious intent. He said he did it to help them cope with things like anxiety and improve their performance in sports.
Kenney hypnotized 16-year-old Marcus Freeman, who was the quarterback of the North Port football team, to help him concentrate and deal with pain during games. He also taught Freeman how to hypnotize himself. On March 15, 2011, Freeman had been to the dentist, while returning home, Freeman’s girlfriend said that he got a strange look on his face before their car veered off of I-75. Freeman was killed, but his girlfriend survived.
Wesley McKinley was hypnotized to help deal with nervousness over an upcoming guitar audition at the Julliard School of the Arts. His friend Thomas Lyle said that Kenney hypnotized McKinley at least three times, and when McKinley would get on the school bus after a session he couldn’t remember his own name. McKinley hung himself on April 8, 2011.
Brittany Palumbo, 17, also hanged herself. Her parents said that Kenney diagnosed her with “test anxiety,” and told her that hypnosis could help her with her SAT scores. When her scores did not improve, her parents say she became depressed, before committing suicide.
In the 2011 report, Kenney admitted that he had ignored at least three warnings to stop hypnotizing students. He also admitted to using “poor judgement” by doing so. “I’m not saying I used great judgment all the time here,” he said. “I think I used poor judgment several times.”
Kenney was stripped of his educator’s license and now resides in North Carolina, where he runs a bed and breakfast and makes stained glass art. Attorney Mallard said that the families are not happy that Kenney got away virtually unpunished. He told the Herald Tribune,
The thing that is the most disappointing to them is he never apologized, never admitted wrongdoing and is now living comfortably in retirement in North Carolina with his pension.
But the family of Brittany Palumbo said that the settlement provides them with a little closure. In a statement Michael and Patricia Palumbo said, “We are satisfied with the overall outcome, although this is a very hollow victory.”
Here’s a report on the case, from CBS News:
Featured image via CBS News screen capture