Hearing today in principal's hypnosis case

NORTH PORT -- An attorney for George Kenney says a trial is likely inevitable for the former North Port High School principal who faces two counts of unlawful practice of hypnosis.

The Sarasota State Attorney’s Office claims Kenney, 52, used hypnosis for therapeutic purposes on students without the supervision of a physician.

The maximum punishment for each of the second-degree criminal misdemeanor charges is up to 60 days in jail and six months of probation, and a $500 fine for each violation, according to the SAO. Although he was charged, Kenney was not arrested, and entered a written plea of not guilty to the charges. His first court hearing is scheduled for today at the Sarasota County Courthouse.

“We worked with the State Attorney’s Office to resolve the issue, but we clearly need more time,” Sarasota attorney Mark Zimmerman said last week, adding the SAO turned over voluminous paperwork from the investigation that included more than 100 interviews of those who witnessed Kenney’s hypnosis at the school over a three-year period.

“This is the first time the ball is in our court.”

Kenney, who last year wanted to return to NPHS, will retire June 30, but after a decade with the school district, has enough vacation time to make his last working day at the district office in Sarasota in March. He was reassigned to that post last May.

Court documents show Kenney, a nontherapeutic hypnotist, used “relaxation techniques to conduct hypnosis and work on specific issues” with students.

“I think some people like to make more out of it because three students died last year,” Zimmerman said. “Their deaths didn’t have anything to do with hypnosis.”

Zimmerman said the case continues to have an impact on Kenney.

“It’s stressful on him,” Zimmerman said. “There are a lot of third-party people who have opinions. But I am looking out for the best interest of Dr. Kenney.”

Zimmerman said prosecutors haven’t produced any expert witnesses yet.

Court documents show the state has a list of more than 100 names of those who might have “relevant” information about Kenney’s hypnosis sessions including athletes, students, interim NPHS principal Bill Massolio and teachers.

Parents of three late students who were hypnotized by Kenney and died last year also could be asked to testify -- Paul and Dana Freeman, whose son Marcus, 16, died in a crash on Interstate 75 in March; Charles McKinley, whose son Wesley, 16, committed suicide in April; and Patricia Palumbo, whose daughter Brittany, 17, also committed suicide, weeks before graduation.

“Dr. Kenney could be on our list to testify,” Zimmerman added.

Dr. Dwight Damon, founder and president of the National Guild of Hypnotists, said he believes Kenney was using hypnosis to help students focus more clearly on sports and test-taking skills, with their parents’ permission. He said the guild has 17,000 members in 73 countries, and many, including those overseas, are backing Kenney.

“He was acting as a motivation coach,” Damon said. “In my opinion, ministers, coaches and teachers would all be at fault for motivating students. Hypnotists are complementary to licensed health professionals and not an alternative to them. We do not diagnose people. We motivate and that’s not practicing medicine. He wasn’t treating students in a therapeutic manner. He didn’t have an office set up.”

Email: eallen@ sun-herald.com.