SARASOTA COUNTY — The families of three North Port High School students who died — and whom former principal George Kenney had hypnotized at least once prior to their deaths — plan to file lawsuits today against the Sarasota County School District.
The families of Marcus Freeman, Wesley McKinley and Brittany Palumbo allege negligence in the district’s supervision of the former NPHS chief.
“These families had bright, young, energetic kids who put their trust in their principal and it cost them their lives. He was in a position of authority and had no business practicing hypnotism, but was permitted to do so by the Sarasota County School Board,” stated attorney Damian Mallard, who plans to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. today with the families. “As a result, these three students are dead. The families are devastated and want accountability for their children so their lives lost will not be in vain.”
Freeman, McKinley and Palumbo were among about 75 students who participated in Kenney’s hypnosis sessions.
Freeman, 16, died March 15, 2011, in a crash on Interstate 75. Kenney taught Freeman self-hypnosis to help the football player deal with pain. After a March 15 dental appointment, Freeman left appearing pale and tired. “While driving home ... Freeman suddenly became quiet, his arms straightened on the wheel, his eyes froze and rolled back in his head, which leaned to the right,” the lawsuit states. Freeman drove off the road and crashed. His girlfriend, who was riding in the truck with him, survived.
McKinley, 16, went through at least three hypnosis sessions, including one on April 7, 2011, to improve his guitar skills. The next day, “McKinley died as a result of suicide caused by the hypnotism of Dr. Kenney,” the lawsuit states.
Kenney also hypnotized Palumbo, 17, while her mom was in the room, to help her focus while taking the SAT. She committed suicide May 4, 2011.
The school district knew Kenney had been conducting hypnosis. Steve Cantees, executive director of high schools, told Kenney to limit the sessions to the classroom, and to obtain parental permission, in the winter of 2009.
The lawsuits state the school district “knew or should have known, had they contacted their legal counsel, that Dr. Kenney was committing a crime by practicing hypnosis without a license.” The lawsuits also contend the district, in part, “took no action to supervise, monitor, inquire or ensure that Dr. Kenney’s hypnosis sessions were limited to the psychology class demonstrations after mid-2009, as had been instructed.”
While each family’s lawsuit seeks a minimum of $15,000, which is the statutory minimum for a civil case in the circuit level of courts, Mallard said the cases are not about financial gain.
“This is more about righting a wrong,” Mallard said. “This isn’t about money. This is about them wanting justice.”
The school district started an investigation in May 2011, which resulted in Kenney being placed on administrative leave and moved to a district position in Sarasota. Kenney retired earlier this year and moved to South Carolina.
“I had heard some time ago that there were some families that were considering filing a lawsuit,” school district spokesman Gary Leatherman said Tuesday. “Our lawyers would respond, but there would be no direct district involvement. There may be some people in the district who would be called as witnesses, but nobody else in the district would have any role to play in the lawsuit.”
In June 2011, the Florida Department of Health contacted the North Port Police Department about Kenney’s hypnosis sessions, which ultimately resulted in misdemeanor charges. Kenney pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of unlawful practice of hypnosis, and on Jan. 31, received one year of probation, 50 hours of community service and court costs.
Attorney Mark Zimmerman, who represented Kenney during the criminal case, called the lawsuits frivolous.
“His actions are in no way related (to the three deaths),” Zimmerman said.