A popular school principal in Florida has been placed on administrative leave after a student who he hypnotized committed suicide.
George Kenney, principal since 2001 at North Port High School, had been using hypnosis for years and made podcasts on reducing test anxiety and improving sports performance through the technique. He also has a website that promotes hypnosis to "banish fear and insecurity from your life."
But his use of the practice came under scrutiny after Kenney acknowledged he had hypnotized Wesley McKinley, 16, the day before the teenager killed himself in April.
When the executive director of Sarasota high schools learned a couple of years ago that Kenney was using hypnosis, he told the principal to restrict the practice to psychology class and only use it with parents' permission, according to Scott Ferguson, spokesman for the school district.
He said Kenney is on paid administrative leave while an outside agency, Steele Investigators, looks into the matter.
"He is a well-liked principal. There's a lot of support among students for Dr.Kenney," said Ferguson. He said that the investigation would probably take a few weeks and would be focusing on issues such as parental permission and whether Kennedy was performing hypnosis outside the psychology classroom.
"The focus of the investigation is not on any cause and effect," concerning McKinley's suicide, he said.
Florida Principal Has Used Hypnosis for Years
Alex Bokun, 21, a University of Florida student who graduated from North Port in 2007, was one of a number of students and parents who posted in support of the principal on a Facebook page. He called Kenney "a great guy who helped me out a lot."
He said Kenney's use of hypnosis was widely known. At Alex's senior graduation party, students volunteered to be hypnotized. It was "fun, nothing serious," said Bokun, who said there are videos showing students doing "silly" things at the party, like "a guy dancing with another guy."
Angie Mages, 41, who has known Kenney since he was band director at Lemon Bay High School in the early 1980s, said he always had the best interests of every student at heart. "He's not the type of person who would try to harm any child," she said.
Kenney trained in hypnosis at the Omni Hynosis Training Center in DeLand, Fla., according to its director, Gerald Kein. He said the program involves 100 hours of training and "teaches all the safety parameters."
"He was terrific. He was one of the most compassionate people I ever met," said Kein. He said it was "ludicrous" to think that hypnosis could have led to a teenager's suicide.
Kenney used the technique, Kein said, "like a motivational coach" helping students with test anxiety. "Many educators have found it a tremendous way to be better at what they want to do," he said.
The school has grappled with tragedy this spring. Another student, Brittany Palumbo, 17, died in an apparent suicide this month, and football player Marcus Freeman, 16, died March 15 when he lost control of his Ford pickup on the highway.