Did teacher “alter the brains” of teens so that they ended up dead? No.

A tragic case has been settled in Florida regarding the deaths of three high school students who were said to have been “hypnotised” by a former school official.

The families of three students from North Port High School will receive $200,000 each from the Sarasota County School District under a settlement agreement.

Because of this settlement, the case did not go to trial but it SHOULD have considering that there is no evidence that “hypnosis” had anything to do with this. However, there are some problems with what happened and the school would likely not have wanted this case to continue and incur the associated legal fees to bring in expert witnesses.

An attorney representing the three families said that parents didn’t want money, just accountability, saying that George Kenney, the former Principle, “altered the underdeveloped brains of teenagers, and they all ended up dead because of it.”

The latter is almost certainly a false claim. Since it didn’t go to court, there was no proof needed.

Kenney was not licensed to use hypnosis nor did he ask permission from the parents. It’s reported that Kenney was charged with two misdemeanors in 2012 for practicing therapeutic hypnosis without a license. That is a legitimate issue. Kenney never admitted wrongdoing even though the Executive Director of the District 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.”

All three students, however, had other circumstances that appeared to have come into play with regards to their deaths. One crashed his car after a dental procedure. Two others committed suicide. The media report states these two were anxious or seriously stressed over specific personal issues. Sadly, suicide rates are about 11 out of 100,000 in adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24. It is not rare.

There is not enough information given to the public (which is understandable) to comprehensively judge the kids’ causes of death or the background circumstances that may have led to it.

A logical reading of what happened is that Kenney was trying to help the hundreds of kids in the school deal with their personal troubles in a productive way. He ended up a scapegoat for three sets of devastated parents trying to make sense of their tragedies. Yet, it is arguable that Kenney should have applied this technique to his students without training or permission. If they had mental health issues, he was not qualified to deal with that.

As someone who has personally undergone a session with a hypnotherapist as well as using guided meditation techniques with my own children, I will state that it can be useful in achieving a sense of control over anxiety, nausea and pain, and can help to clear out troubling thoughts that impair concentration. So, it can be a tool for some that is supported by scientific data. It is not “mind control”. Because of the misunderstanding of how it works, the power of hypnosis is exaggerated and often blamed for strange behavior and events. It does not work the way it is portrayed in popular culture. The media will latch onto stories of victims who claim to have been under a Svengali-like spell but hypnosis is not some magical state to take over a person. It’s incredible that this story went the way it did.

We’ve had several stories where hypnosis was suggested as playing a part in robberies:

Robbery victim claims to have been hypnotized

Hypnosis robbery in Chinatown

Staring bandit prompts notions of hypnosis robbery

Hypnosis thief on video using seemingly magical methods

Kids in a public situation can be susceptible to suggestion as can adults in a private and seemingly safe situation. All of the cases reported in the media that we’ve seen have left out some critical thinking about hypnosis and important other details that played a role.

A goal of this site is to highlight the problems of news stories like this so that people might realize that the claims are backed by unsupported allegations and pseudoscience. You are not getting the whole story but that is the one that is propagated to the public who then continues to buy into a false idea. That’s not an efficient way for an informed society to operate.

Tip: Brian Dunning of Skeptoid Media

  8 comments for “Did teacher “alter the brains” of teens so that they ended up dead? No.

  1. Tony
    October 7, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now about this case, so I very much appreciate your writing and posting this piece.

  2. Charles Insandiego
    October 7, 2015 at 4:09 PM

    I was intrigued by the statement that “Kenney was charged with two misdemeanors in 2012 for practicing therapeutic hypnosis without a license”, so I did a bit of digging. Apparently anyone can become licensed in Florida by following this link:
    http://www.hypnotherapyboard.org/clinical-hypnosis-certification-training-now-100-online/
    and shelling out $97.00.

    Seems legit.

  3. October 7, 2015 at 10:33 PM

    The source website of the story, the ‘Herald-Tribune’ of Sarasota, Florida, contained a list of links on the left side of the page to related stories. One of them, ‘Hypnotizing principal: Why did he do it?’, which I’ll link below, I found of interest. It contained statements from area mental health professionals as to why they suspected the principal would engage in administering hypnosis of which he was both unqualified to conduct and apparently previously ordered to cease. They discussed conditions such as addictive behavior and narcissism, among others.

    I bring this up because I find it, in my opinion, quite comparable to dysfunctional dynamics which can often be observed among hypnotists within the UFO community. Such UFO hypnotists (sometimes amateur) continue their dubious activities in seeming complete disregard for all the problems that have been repeatedly shown to be inherent to the ill conceived process.

    http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20110719/ARTICLE/110719557/2416/NEWS

  4. Tom
    October 8, 2015 at 2:00 AM

    Whatever the motive Mr Kenney may have had to use hypnosis it seems to me that he lacked the common sense we should expect of a Teacher both he and the High School might just as well posted a sign saying “Sue Me” outside the school.

  5. Margaret
    October 8, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    I think the true sadness is that anything which doesn’t use drugs, chemicals or anything of the kind; is seen as dangerous. I truly don’t know much about hypnosis in itself; but have meditated since I was 17 and find that anything which can help us to take control of our own thoughts; turning them to positivity; is good. It has certainly helped me in my life. Why is it that in a story like this there is no report on what else was happening in the teenagers lives; what else was being taken; which may have pushed them over the edge. Why is everyone so quick to blame and accuse something which was obviously given with the intention of helping them. Has anyone looked at the expensive; chemical ridden tablets; foods and perhaps other substances which may have been at play here.
    Is the world still in the dark ages – going on a ‘witch – hunt”. Why don’t they turn the ‘witch hunt” to the multi billion dollar pharmaceutical companies – and doctors who dish out a cocktail of anti-depressant drugs to anyone suffering from even a few symptoms of depression……remember there is big money in keeping people depressed. The wellness industry which promotes natural; meditation; quality fresh fruit, veg, no over-the-counter drugs of any kind, but a lifestyle of living from love, not fear; of controlling our own thoughts minute by minute – this is always under scrutiny.
    An educator, artist, author

  6. October 8, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    I don’t disagree that focus on behavioral issues would be an improvement. But, I do disagree that pharma is bad. There is no justification for removing all drugs as options. Also, it’s very easy to ask for control and love and thoughtfullness; it’s overly simplistic to suggest that is the answer. The world is far more complicated with no simple solution.

  7. Jan Malcheski
    October 8, 2015 at 1:39 PM

    Good comments. Your “faith” 🙂 in hypnotherapy, which has been often lumped in with more suspect complementary/integral/alternative medicine, sent me scurrying to my medical databases for hard research articles. Randomized, controlled studies (the gold standard of evidence based medicine) do support its effectiveness in treatment of specific problems (insomnia, chronic pain, etc.) but it remains difficult to study and seems under utilized by mainstream medicine.

    For a (free) overview, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3113537/pdf/nihms-270994.pdf

  8. Rich
    October 8, 2015 at 2:36 PM

    I’ve suffered from depression and the medication I received helped make me feel much, much better. I was, frankly, exceptionally glad that my doctor agreed to prescribe it.

    It wasn’t the sole reason for my improvement but it was a major factor. I was also helped by learning to recognise and alter depressive thought patterns, and I like an apple as much as the next man, but to dismiss medication as a tool of Big Pharma is daft and at worst reckless. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the same relief I got from it.

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