SARASOTA, Florida -- Three North Port families are suing the Sarasota School Board in a wrongful death lawsuit for the deaths of their teenage children.
Two of the teens, Wesley McKinley, 16, and Brittany Palumbo, 17, committed suicide. A third student, 16-year-old Marcus Freeman died in a car accident. All three families say a principal's use of hypnosis and the district's negligence led to their deaths.
According the district's own investigation, it was common knowledge former North Port High School principal Dr. George Kenney used hypnosis at school, sometimes in a class setting or one-on-one. He hypnotized about 75 people, including students, between 2009 and 2011.
Last year, three of those students hypnotized died between March and May, and the families blame the district. They say this lawsuit is not about money, but responsibility and accountability.
"I hate to think our children died in vain, that their deaths are not used to better the future of everyone's children," said Paul Freeman, Marcus Freeman's father.
During a press conference in front of their attorney's Sarasota office, the families said they hope district officials are listening. Dr. George Kenney used hypnosis in school despite district officials' orders.
Peggy McKinley, Wesley McKinley's mother, said, "In 2009, he was told to stop. None of us would be standing here if they followed through [and] made him stop, in 2009."
Patricia Palumbo, Brittany's mother, said, "Dr. Kenney sought out our three children. We believe now, in hindsight, he did this for one reason: to benefit himself [through] sales of books, CDs, on hypnosis."
The families say Kenney and the district's negligence led to their children's death.
Dana has this message for Kenney: "Shame on you. Shame on you for messing with my son's mind."
In March 2011, Marcus Freeman allegedly used self hypnosis while driving to handle painful dental work. He lost control of his car and died. Kenney had earlier used hypnotism to help the star quarterback deal with pain.
"Sports were his world. He was a good kid, a loving kid," said Paul Freeman.
According to court records, Kenney hypnotized Wesley McKinley three times. In April that year, a day after a session, Wesley committed suicide. The self-taught musician was a week away from auditioning with Julliard.
"Friends said he was the brother they wished they had and the friend everyone wanted," said Peggy.
Brittany Palumbo's goal was to go to college at the University of Central Florida. Kenney's hypnosis therapy helped Brittany with testing. In May, she committed suicide.
Patricia said, "She had big dreams, she worked so hard."
Brittany's parents say their daughter mailed a college application to UCF the night before her suicide and went to the store to buy makeup two hours before hanging herself. Patricia said, "We never saw this coming."
The Sarasota School District released this statement:
"The superintendent and administration of the Sarasota County School District are sympathetic to the suffering of the families in North Port over the deaths of their children. We do not believe, however, that the actions of either the School Board or any of its employees caused these tragic events to occur.
"When it is served with the complaint, the district will respond through its attorneys. The District does not believe any further public comment is appropriate and will refrain from making any further public statements regarding pending litigation."
Dr. Kenney pleaded guilty to a second degree misdemeanor for practicing therapeutic hypnosis without a license. Kenney completed his probation, paid a small fine, and did community hours. Kenney resigned from his job last summer and is no longer working with children.