NORTH PORT, Fla. — A school board in Florida has agreed to pay $600,000 in a settlement to a lawsuit filed by the families of three students who died after being hypnotized by their high school principal.
The board of the Sarasota County School District voted on Tuesday to pay $200,000 to each family—just days before the matter was to go to trial.
“It’s something they will never get over,” attorney Damian Mallard told reporters. “He altered the underdeveloped brains of teenagers, and they all ended up dead because of it.”
The parents of Wesley McKinley, 16, Brittany Palumbo, 17, and Marcus Freeman, 16, believe that North Port High School Principal George Kenney and the Sarasota County School District are responsible for the deaths of their children.
Kenney is believed to have hypnotized as many as 75 students and staff between 2006 and 2011. McKinley had reportedly sought to be hypnotized by Kenney in order to obtain help as he practiced for his guitar audition with New York’s Julliard music school. Palumbo had allegedly been told by Kenney that hypnotism may help improve her SAT scores as he believed she had test anxiety. Freeman, a quarterback on the school’s football team, sought hypnosis to help him concentrate on the field.
Freeman died in a car accident in March 2011 as he was driving home from a dental appointment with his girlfriend. According to reports, he was to believed to have been in a state of hypnosis when he drove off the interstate. His girlfriend survived the accident, but he did not.
McKinley was found hanging outside of his home the following month. He had been hypnotized by Kenney that same day. McKinley’s friend, Thomas Lyle, told the Herald Tribune that sometimes McKinley wouldn’t know his name or his friend’s names after being hypnotized.
“I would say that he was in a distant phase. He wasn’t all there mentally, it seemed like, after the sessions,” he stated.
Palumbo was found hanged in her closet that same year as she became discouraged that her grades were not improving following the hypnosis.
“The school board is as negligent as Dr. Kenney is, or Mr. Kenney, I should say,” her mother, Patricia Palumbo, told CBS News. “I need those other families to know that I’m trying to help their kids and their families so that they don’t end up like my daughter and my family.”
In May 2011, Kenney was placed on leave and resigned a year later, at which time he was charged with two misdemeanors for practicing hypnosis without a licence. He entered a plea of no contest and served one year probation.
Some students had rallied behind Kenney, creating a “Bring Back Dr Kenney” and “Students in Support of Dr George Kenney” page on Facebook.
“This whole thing about Dr. Kenney having any part of any death is ridiculous,” a post from November 2011 reads. “Any educated person would know that hypnosis is completely harmless and you would not do anything you normally would not do under it.”
In 2013, Kenney gave up his teaching license and was banned from obtaining another.
Some Christians warn against hypnosis as opening oneself to the occult.
“The ‘father of hypnotism,’ Franz Anton Mesmer—from whose name we get the word mesmerize—was himself a practitioner of the occult. His method of inducing a trance was very similar to the way a medium conducts a séance,” outlines the site GotQuestions.org. “Hypnotism, along with yoga and Transcendental Meditation, has always been linked to spiritual darkness. The newfound respectability of these practices has not changed their underlying nature.”
“Hypnotism is often promoted as a simple way of ‘refocusing’ ourselves and finding the answer within us,” it states. “As believers in Christ, our focus is to be on our Savior, not on ourselves or anything else (Hebrews 12:2). We know that the answers do not lie within us (Romans 7:18); the solution we need is found in Christ (Romans 8:2).”