The families of three students who died within two months of each other after being hypnotized by a high school principal in Florida will each be paid $200,000 in a lawsuit settlement. From the Sarasota, Florida, Herald-Tribune:
The $600,000 settlement closes a bizarre, yearslong case that began after former North Port High School Principal [George] Kenney admitted he hypnotized 16-year-old Wesley McKinley a day before the teenager committed suicide in April 2011.
A subsequent investigation found that Kenney hypnotized as many as 75 students, staff members and others from 2006 until McKinley’s death. One basketball player at the school said Kenney hypnotized him 30 to 40 times to improve his concentration.
Two of the deceased students hanged themselves and one drove off a freeway with his girlfriend, who survived the crash. The parents of Marcus Freeman, the student who died in the car crash, believe that he was trying to use self-hypnosis techniques that Kenney taught him to deal with the pain of a root canal before he died.
Kenney resigned in 2012; he was convicted of two misdemeanors for practicing therapeutic hypnosis without a license, for which he was sentenced to probation and community service. He now runs a bed and breakfast in North Carolina. Kenney sold therapeutic hypnosis MP3s and CDs on Amazon, continuing to do so for a time after the students’ deaths, and his practice of hypnotizing students as a form of therapy was well-known before the suicides. (The Herald-Tribune says that even before the hypnosis incidents involving the students who died, “Sarasota County School District Executive Director of High Schools Steve Cantees warned Kenney at least three times not to practice hypnosis unless it was a demonstration in a psychology class and he had written parent permission from each student.”)
Complicating the story: There doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence that hypnosis can increase the risk of suicide, nor does any coverage of the story suggest that Kenney had ill intentions or made any identifiable errors while performing hypnosis sessions, which are a relatively common form of therapy. A Tampa Bay Times piece from 2011 suggests that the suicides might have taken place after Kenney hypnotized students with pre-existing but unrecognized mental health issues. “The issue in working with hypnosis is that there can be latent things that are triggered, like past experiences and memories, and the patient can have a bad reaction,” said a psychologist who spoke to the paper. “Does hypnosis cause suicide in and of itself? That’s not really likely. Can it trigger some sort of mental health problem that was dormant? Yes.”