NORTH PORT, Fla. — High school principal George Kenney acknowledged using hypnosis to help people: students who needed to relax before tests, a basketball player having trouble making free throws and even school secretaries who wanted to quit smoking.
But now the popular 51-year-old principal’s future at North Port High School is in question since it came to light that he had hypnotized two students before their separate suicides this spring. There is no indication their deaths were any more than a tragic coincidence. However, Kenney acknowledged conducting the sessions after being warned by his boss to stop such one-on-one hypnosis with students at school.
Most students, teachers and fellow administrators at the southwest Florida school were aware that Kenney was a trained hypnotist who would eagerly help those who sought him out for sessions, according to a school district report. Students looked forward to his demonstrations in a psychology class and at other school events.
In April, according to the Sarasota County School District report, he hypnotized a 16-year-old student to help him better focus on a test. The next day, the boy committed suicide. Kenney was put on leave in May when the boy’s parents, who had given their permission for the sessions, raised concerns after his death.
The administrator’s situation then got stickier when an investigation showed that he had also hypnotized another student five months before her May 4 suicide, initially lied about it and had defied three separate verbal warnings to stop the sessions with students.
A 134-page independent investigative report released by the district last week includes an interview with Kenney, who acknowledged defying the orders and then lying.
"I’m not saying I used great judgment all the time here," he told an investigator. "I think I used poor judgment several times."
But the report also reflects the support and affection Kenney enjoys at the 2,300-student high school, about 90 miles south of Tampa. Two Facebook pages, one with more than 1,600 fans, have been created to support Kenney, principal of North Port High since its opening in 2001. Some students who were hypnotized say it helped them with sports and academics.
Many students and staff credit him with guiding the school through a time of grief. In March, before the two suicides, a 16-year-old football player was killed in a car crash, which followed the traffic death of a teacher killed driving to school in November.
Kenney is the "glue that just holds the school together," said his administrative assistant, Dianna McLaren.
Kenney declined to comment through his attorney, Mark Zimmerman, who said there is no "causal connection" between the hypnosis sessions and the suicides. Both students had sought Kenney’s help with test anxiety and had signed permission slips from their parents, Zimmerman said. In the case of student Brittany Palumbo, her mother was present during the session.
"It sort of conjures up a feeling of mind control, which of course is not what hypnosis is," Zimmerman said. "This was hypnosis as a relaxation and focus technique to aid in test and athletic performance."
Zimmerman said Kenney initially misspoke when he told an administrator that he had not had a session with Palumbo, and never intended to hide it.
Kenney was more than a hobbyist when it came to hypnosis. He wrote four books about using hypnosis in defeating test anxiety and mastering baseball and basketball skills. He trained at a Florida hypnosis center and was a member of the National Guild of Hypnotists and the National Board of Hypnosis Education and Certification. He told investigators he has worked with around 36 students – with parental permission – in the past couple years, mostly on test anxiety, athletic performance and anger management. He also worked with several of the school’s sports teams, staff members and their families.
"Dr. Kenney isn’t doing any hocus-pocus," Ann Brandenberger, a psychology teacher at the high school, told an investigator. "That is just what this has been blown into."
According to the report, Kenney would have people close their eyes and visualize something serene as he talked them into a state of "deep relaxation," then would suggest to them that they will feel calm and focused before a test, sporting event or other activity.
Gerald Kein, director of the National Board of Hypnosis Education and Certification, described hypnosis as "bypassing the critical factor of the conscious mind," creating an "open-mindedness" to new ideas.
Kein said that to his knowledge Kenney didn’t violate any of the board’s rules about treating children. Rules call for written permission from parents and urge parental involvement in the sessions. Kein said a hypnotist shouldn’t work with anyone who clearly needs help from a licensed medical professional. Kenney said he had no indication that either student who later committed suicide was suffering from mental illness.
"I think the whole thing is ludicrous. I think it’s ridiculous," said Kein, who is also director of the Omni Hypnosis Training Center in DeLand, Fla., one of the places where Kenney trained. "From what I understand, he just worked on motivation with these young people, motivation and test anxiety and allowing them to be the very best they can."
School district spokesman Gary Leatherman said school officials will wait to see whether the North Port police decide to prosecute Kenney under a decades-old state law that requires a doctor’s reference for hypnosis as therapy. After that, the district superintendent will decide what, if any, punishment he should receive.
Kenney’s attorney said he’s working in the school district offices pending the outcome of the investigation and looks forward to getting back to his post at the high school.