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Investigation finds Jackson schools superintendent did not harass or bully school board member

Jackson Public Schools Board of Education Meeting
Jackson Public Schools protest
Posted at 1:42 PM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 18:25:12-04

JACKSON, Mich. — A third-party investigation into a conflict between Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Beal and Trustee Kesha Hamilton has found that Beal did not harass or bully Hamilton.

A report on the incident says many witnesses emphasized that context is important in understanding Beal's encounter with Hamilton following a Board of Education meeting on Jan 18.

In her interview with the East Lansing-based Thrun Law Firm, which was contracted to conduct the investigation, Hamilton said, “It’s important to understand that this has been building. We’ve had some pretty intense meetings. The Jan. 18 meeting ‘sets the tone’ for the post-meeting encounter with Superintendent Beal.”

According to the report, Beal and some witnesses believe Hamilton ran for office for the purpose of removing him as superintendent. Hamilton denies that. In the report she says, “I’m not out for his job. I just want answers to questions. He’s not that important to me. He’s a dad, husband and has a family.”

During the January meeting, Hamilton raised concerns about Beal’s pay raises and goals. Hamilton wanted Beal’s goals to be more measurable, including the district’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

She also spoke with a State Board of Education attorney to see if Beal’s annual raises were fiscally responsible.

The report details an interview with that attorney, who acknowledged he had a phone conversation with Hamilton in early January regarding her concerns about Beal’s pay raises being beyond what they were supposed to be.

The attorney found that there was was a “miscalculation error” and perhaps “some other little thing” but that if “it says X on the contract, that’s what it is.” He also found the total cost of the miscalculation was “not substantial" and said it was a “gross misinterpretation” if his comments to Hamilton were communicated to suggest something was wrong. 

The findings validate there was a post-meeting encounter between Beal and Hamilton. Beal left his seat at the end of the table, walked in front of the Board table and approached Hamilton who was at the opposite end of the table and packing up her belongings.

Beal expressed his frustrations with Hamilton, claiming she was “defaming him,” and said, if she continued to do so, he will contact his attorney.

Hamilton felt very unsafe during the interaction. She alleged that Beal aggressively approached her with his hand on his hip and his finger extended as he violated Hamilton’s personal space while “looming over the table” and “vocalizing loudly with great anger" and "threats to bring a lawsuit against her based on ‘defamation of character.’”

She told Beal firmly to walk away and, according to Hamilton, he chose to ignore her directive while “continuing to threaten and loom over the table and into my personal space.”

Jackson Public Schools Board of Education Meeting
Jackson school board listening to public comment

In a letter written by Hamilton to the Board of Education, Hamilton also said not only did she feel threatened and bullied but that “at no time is it appropriate for a Superintendent to threaten, bully, harass nor intimidate a superior duly elected official.”

Hamilton alleges Beal “lost control of his emotions, intentionally misconstrued the conversation and has been attempting to hijack the narrative,” according to the report.

The post-meeting encounter was very short, approximately 10 seconds according to most witnesses. Witnesses who observed the post-meeting encounter described the situation differently from Hamilton.

Beal said he did not raise his voice, yell or lean over the table but that he “stopped at the general area between Trustee Libby Brown and Hamilton.”

President Angela Mitchell noted that Beal appeared frustrated with how the meeting went and that he had “one hand in his pocket and talking with the other hand.” But that there was no physical contact.

Vice President Pam Fitzgerald said Beal was loud but “the whole place was loud” and that Beal “always uses his hands when talking.”

Treasurer Erin White said Beal was never in front of Hamilton and “at best he was in front of me.” He did not see Beal pointing at her and his tone was serious.

Secretary Cheryl Simonetti said Beal and Hamilton were four feet apart and that he did not touch the table nor interfere with her personal space. She did say he was “intentional and firm” but didn’t yell.

Brown said he did not lean over the table but he was leaning toward Hamilton. She reports he was not close enough to touch her but that he was “red-faced, pointing his finger and yelling.”

“When Trustee Hamilton said, ‘get back,’ Beal stopped and did not say anything more,” according to Brown.

Trustee Shalanda Hunt reports Beal walked to the end of the table in the vicinity of Hamilton but didn’t hear any of the conversation. She did say Beal was “fully engaged but not for long” and that he was “animated, pointing and moving his finger.”

Hamilton stands by her claims.

Jackson Public Schools Board of Education Meeting
April 2022 JPS Board of Education Meeting; Kesha Hamilton pictured on far right

“Nobody can tell me what I experienced,” she said. “Any person who has experienced some type of harassment, threats or bullying from someone, others looking on aren’t the determining voice on whether or not what they say they experienced did or did not happen.”

The report details another time when Beal and Hamilton were together. It took place on Jan. 27 nine days after the board meeting. Beal attended a Community Reads meeting hosted by Racing4Equity, a book club at the Jackson District Library and facilitated by Hamilton.

Hamilton does not know why Beal was at that meeting. Beal did not notify Hamilton that he would attend the event. Hamilton alleges that, by doing this, Beal furthered his harassment and bullying attempts.

Hunt had invited Beal to attend with her. Hunt would not be able to go as she became ill. Beal did not speak at the meeting and just sat there according to Hamilton’s interview with the law firm.

The report found there was no basis “whatsoever” to conclude Beal’s attendance at this event was designed to harass and bully Hamilton.

It also said a board member is not the superintendent’s superior, supervisor or boss but that the board has supervisory responsibilities over the superintendent, citing Michigan law.

Hamilton believes the report was not fair or inclusive.

“I didn’t have the option to choose my own counsel as the victim in this situation, so for that reason I initially thought it would be slanted so I was not surprised with the results,” she said.

Jackson Public Schools Board of Education Meeting
People filing in ahead of the April board of education meeting at JPS

She wants to craft policies to hold the board and superintendent accountable.

“When I looked through our policies prior to submitting that memorandum, I recognize we had no policies that would hold this board, this superintendent accountable,” she said. “I still feel like all the other things that I said like him getting anger management should happen and that this is going into his personnel file. That should happen. The other thing that should happen is he should not be the Human Resources Director. I don’t take back anything.”

Beal has been under fire in recent months. During the March Board of Education meeting some former staff members alleged bullying and harassment by Beal.

Last night, a small protest against Beal was held in front of Jackson High School ahead of the April board meeting. Some community members spoke during public comment in favor of Beal’s performance ahead of the findings of this report, while others backed Hamilton’s complaints of harassment and bullying.

Jackson Public Schools protest
Protest at Jackson High School ahead of the districts board of education meeting

To read the full report click here.

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