North Port, Florida - North Port High School students love their principal and they're fighting to get him back. School district officials put Dr. George Kenney on paid administrative leave earlier this week for using hypnosis on students.
Students have filled dozens of pages with signatures, more than a thousand, on two petitions. The first petition is from North Port High School's senior class. Students want their principal to attend graduation. "All seniors want a traditional graduation and shake the principal's hand," says Bobby Werdell, 17, a senior.
The second petition is from the student body asking for his return. "He's irreplaceable, trustworthy and honest. He's been a great role model, a leadership example for all students at our school "says Bobby.
Kenney is on paid administrative leave for using hypnotherapy on students, most recently on 16-year-old Wesley McKinley. The teen committed suicide the next day.
"We don't blame him for the suicide," says Shirley Brown, Sarasota School Board member. "He was told two years ago not to do one-on-one hypnosis, but only in psychology class to demonstrate hypnosis, not hypnotherapy."
Despite the district official's verbal orders to Kenney, the certified hypnotist continued to use hypnosis on students with parental permission and, in many cases, students came to him.
"I've been to him six times," says Cody Wright, 17, senior. Cody asked Kenney to help him improve his high jump by helping him slow down his approach. "You'd sit in a chair in his office. He'd play some music and have you close your eyes and take deep breaths. He'd tell me you are going to do great, jump great, all positive stuff."
The young athlete says the hypnosis worked. "It calmed me down, helped me focus to jump and do what I needed to do."
The high jumper says he finished his first season strong, first in the district and 6th at regionals.
"Hypnosis trains people to let go of their anxiety, of their fear," says clinical psychologist Dr. William Pettibon. The Sarasota psychologist says hypnosis has its purpose. "It's a way to help people focus, relax, develop the ability to have hope and change a behavior."
Pettibon also says hypnosis will only work if the person is motivated to make change. "It's impossible to get someone to do something that they don't want to do. You can motivate them to do something that they do want to do. I use hypnosis to help people develop a sense of empowerment."
But regarding Principal Kenney, Pettibon says his use of hypnosis was for the right reason, to change a behavior, but questions if he's qualified to do so.
"As I read the law of Florida, being an educator does not have sufficient credentials to do hypnotherapy," says Pettibon.
Students say their principal deserves a second chance.
Bobby says, "He did break the rules but he was doing it to help us."
The district has hired an investigation agency out of Bradenton to look into Kenney's use of hypnosis. A group of students will meet with Sarasota's school superintendent, Lori White, at 4 p.m. Monday to deliver the signed petitions and to speak to White about their principal. Bobby and his friends believe they will be able to persuade White to allow Kenney to attend the senior graduation on June 4th and to return to school.