In this sprawling community midway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, it would be hard to find a more popular man than George Kenney.
Students at North Port High School, where Kenney has been principal since it opened in 2001, marvel at how many kids he knows by name on a campus of 2,400. They like how he cracked down on bullies, how he was always around to talk about problems.
And they especially liked his unusual method of helping students - hypnosis.
With their parents' permission, Kenney hypnotized kids on the track team to help them run faster. He hypnotized kids in advanced classes to help them relax before tests. He even hypnotized nervous ROTC cadets the night before a statewide drill competition.
Among the many students who sought his help was 16-year-old Wesley McKinley. On April 8, the day after Kenney hypnotized Wesley in a one-on-one session, the boy was found dead, an apparent suicide.
Now Kenney is on paid leave from his $128,375-a-year job, amid investigations into Wesley's death and why Kenney continued hypnotizing students individually even after he was told two years ago to limit his activities to a psychology class.
The suspension is the talk of North Port, where the 52-year-old Kenney is credited with making the high school a source of community pride. Dozens of faculty and staff members have signed a petition urging his reinstatement before the June 6 graduation. Hundreds of students have posted comments on two Facebook pages supporting Kenney.
"He actually cares about students' well-being and success,'' says John Diasparra, a 2008 North Port graduate. "I think that's probably why he did what he did. He saw (hypnosis) as a tool, a very efficient tool to increase well-being.''
The case has also caused a buzz among psychologists, therapists and others who use hypnotism - a loosely regulated technique often associated with stage acts in which hypnotized people quack like ducks or talk into their shoes. Despite the perception caused by such antics, people in hypnotic states cannot be made to act against their will.
For that reason, experts say, it is unlikely hypnosis had anything to do with the student's death. But school officials wonder if a deep interest in hypnosis might have affected the principal's judgment.
Hypnosis "is something that Dr. Kenney felt very strongly about and it just carried on to his work,'' says Frank Kovach, chairman of the Sarasota County School Board. "I think that was a mistake."
Hypnosis is described as a "highly relaxed state,'' "an altered state of consciousness,'' and "a pathway to the subconscious.'' Research has shown that those in a hypnotic state are fully awake, but acutely focused on an image or thought, with a corresponding decrease in awareness of their surroundings.
Hypnosis is used to treat phobias, sex addiction, alcoholism, chronic pain and more. In Florida, it is illegal to use hypnosis for therapeutic purposes unless the practitioner is a licensed health professional (psychiatrist, dentist, etc.) or is working under the supervision of one.
However, due to court rulings that have blurred the meaning of "therapeutic,'' even people like Kenney who are not licensed health professionals can use hypnosis for such things as alleviating stress and improving sports performance.
Kenney got some of his instruction from the Omni Hypnosis Training Center in Deland, which offers videos for home study as well as weeklong classroom sessions costing $1,995.
"I think he is one of the most honorable, aboveboard people that I ever met in my entire life,'' says Gerald Kein, the center's director. "He had a lot of training before he came to me. He's probably one of the most overqualified hypnotists I know.''
Kenney, whose Defeating Test Anxiety with Hypnosis CD is available from Amazon, is known to have used hypnotic techniques on students at least since 2007. That December, the school newspaper, Bobcat Sentinel, ran a photo of a junior who had smeared lipstick on his face after being hypnotized by Kenney in a psychology class.
"It was usually everyone's favorite class,'' says Diasparra, who took it before graduating in 2008. "It was an event because Dr. Kenney was in there.''
Diasparra said the principal told him and other volunteers "to relax your body, relax your arms at your side. He would lift your arms up and let them go.''
Then, "he does basic stuff like 'forget the number six' - people would go '1-2-3-4-5-7,''' Diasparra says.
Two years ago, after Kenney demonstrated hypnosis at a school-related social event, a district supervisor verbally instructed him to use it only in psychology classes and only with parents' permission.
But Kenney continued to hypnotize students outside of class. Evan Thompson, a junior, says the principal hypnotized him and other ROTC cadets in a Central Florida hotel last year before a competition.
"It made me at peace,'' Thompson says. "We finished 13th out of 26th, which was better than the previous year.''
Another junior, Ashley Owens, says hypnosis has "really helped'' a friend on the track team improve performance. "I don't think there's any harm in it,'' Owens says. "It's not like it was a secret. Parents knew about it, teachers knew about it.''
Kenney hypnotized some students repeatedly, including Wesley McKinley.
Wesley had recently transferred from a Catholic high school in Jacksonville to the much larger North Port High. With parental permission, the principal hypnotized him three times, once in a class and twice in individual sessions with Wesley's friends present.
The day after the third session, a friend found the teenager's body in a vacant house close to his home.
Neither Kenney nor the McKinleys would comment for this story. Kenney told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the boy was interested in psychology and wanted to be hypnotized, thinking it would help him be more focused and outgoing.
The sessions "went really well,'' Kenney told the paper. "I didn't have any reason to believe there was a problem.''
But members of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis say Kenney's statement itself reflects a problem - the use of hypnosis by people not trained to spot mental health issues.
"If a student or person is needing something to help them relax, there is usually some underlying issue causing that anxiety and they probably should see a mental health professional,'' says Richard Spana, a Tampa psychologist.
"The issue in working with hypnosis is that there can be latent things that are triggered, like past experiences and memories, and the patient can have a bad reaction," Spana said. "Does hypnosis cause suicide in and of itself? That's not really likely. Can it trigger some sort of mental health problem that was dormant? Yes.''
Barbara Cook, a licensed clinical social worker in Tampa who treats sex problems, says it is important to explore a person's thoughts and feelings before using hypnosis.
"What I do with my patients is knowing what their ego strengths are, what their issues are and if they are vulnerable before doing hypnosis,'' she says. "I wouldn't do it without three or four sessions first.''
The school district suspended Kenney on May 17, after some students began blaming Wesley's death on the hypnosis and after Kenney called the boy's parents to say he wouldn't have hypnotized him had he known he was depressed.
"I have no doubt that his motivation has been positive and he's trying to help the students,'' Wesley's father, Charles McKinley, told the Herald-Tribune.
Principal a scapegoat?
Many students feel the timing of the death was coincidental. Some think the Sarasota County School District, faced with possible lawsuits, is trying to scapegoat Kenney when the district itself was remiss in not ordering him more forcefully to stop individual hypnosis sessions.
The principal's suspension comes at a tough time, capping a year in which a teacher and a student were killed in separate car accidents and another student committed suicide unrelated to the hypnosis controversy.
"There's just so much death and pain in this school this year,'' says Thompson, who organized a protest in support of Kenney. "Next year, when I graduate, I'd like to shake his hand. He's a great principal and a great guy. But I don't think he's going to come back.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.