The families of three high school students who died after being hypnotized by their principal will receive $200,000 each from the Sarasota County School District under a settlement agreement approved by the school board. The $600,000 settlement closes a bizarre, tragic years long case that began after former North Port High School Principal George Kenney admitted to hypnotizing Wesley McKinley, 16, the day before he committed suicide in April 2011. A subsequent investigation found he hypnotized as many as 75 students, staff, and others from 2006 until 2011. One basketball player at the school said Kenney hypnotized him 40 times during his high school years. Kenney said he did so because he thought it would help the students concentrate better in school and reduce their stress.
Among those who were hypnotized, two others died all in the same year. Brittany Palumbo, 17, also killed herself in 2011. Marcus Freeman, 16, died in a fatal car crash after attempting self-hypnosis, a technique that Kenney taught the teen in 2011.
School Board Attorney Art Hardy said after the board approved the agreement on a 4-0 vote that members were “just happy to put this behind them.”
Damian Mallard, an attorney representing the families of McKinley, Palumbo and Freeman, said the parents did not sue for money but to hold the school district accountable,
“It’s something they 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…”
The settlement was reached as the case neared trial. Kenney was placed on administrative leave shortly after McKinley’s death, he resigned almost a year later in 2012. He was charged with two misdemeanors, including practicing medicine without a license. He entered a plea of no contest as part of a deal that saw him serve no jail time. He was sentenced to one-year probation. Kenney gave up his teaching license in 2013 under pressure from the Florida Department of Education and cannot reapply.
“They’re not happy about” Kenney’s lack of punishment, Mallard said, “The thing that is the most disappointing to them is he never apologized, never admitted wrongdoing and is now living comfortably in retirement…with his pension.”
The families could not sue Kenney himself because school district employees are considered an extension of the School Board under Florida law. The only entity that can be sued is the school district. $200,000 awarded to each family is the maximum any Florida government agency can pay without special approval from the government.