On Tuesday, a Florida school board approved a $600,000 payout to the families of three students who died after being hypnotized by their high school principal, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports. The bizarre case has its roots in 2011, when 16-year-old North Port High School quarterback Marcus Freeman died in a March car crash on his way home from a painful dental visit; principal George Kenney had taught him to hypnotize himself to deal with pain during games. A month later, 16-year-old Wesley McKinley hanged himself after being hypnotized by Kenney three times, including on the day before his death. Friends say Wesley couldn't remember his own name after hypnosis sessions to improve his guitar playing. NBC News reports 17-year-old Brittany Palumbo hanged herself in her closet 5 months later, after Kenney hypnotized her to improve her SAT scores.
An investigation launched after Wesley's death found Kenney hypnotized up to 75 students, staff members, and others starting in 2006, the Herald-Tribune reports. A school district official had warned him to stop hypnotizing students three times by the time the deaths started. A lawyer for the families says Kenney never admitted wrongdoing or apologized to the families. "He altered the underdeveloped brains of teenagers, and they all ended up dead because of it." In 2011, the Tampa Tribune spoke with a psychologist who said that while it's "not really likely" that hypnosis can cause suicide, it can "trigger some sort of mental health problem that was dormant." NBC News notes Kenney had received training at a hypnosis center in the state, but he had no license to practice therapeutic hypnosis. Kenney resigned in 2012, pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors, served one year of probation, and is currently operating a bed and breakfast in North Carolina. (Another Florida principal is out of a job because of a Facebook post.)