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‘Fairness for everyone’: Yosemite Community College District trustee duo defies status quo with ambitious due process policy

Yosemite Community College District trustees Leslie Beggs and Anne DeMartini on the campus of Modesto Junior College

Yosemite Community College District trustees Leslie Beggs and Anne DeMartini on the campus of Modesto Junior College. (Mindful Media Photography for FIRE.)

When policies change in California’s community college districts, it’s usually by edict of the oversight corporation.

That corporation, the Community College League of California, is a nonprofit whose membership constitutes the largest postsecondary education system in the nation. The group churns out template policies — on everything from tuition-setting to tuberculosis screenings  — for their 73 California public community college district members, who oversee 115 campuses and serve more than 2 million students. 

To turn those templates into black-letter law for students and faculty, all the trustees in each district have to do is give their vote.

“It’s so much easier,” said Yosemite Community College District trustee Anne DeMartini of the documents she’s expected to rubber-stamp.

“That’s what the state wants,” she added with a sigh. “Just read your board packet and vote.”

“That’s what the state wants,” she added with a sigh. “Just read your board packet and vote.”

But she and fellow YCCD trustee Leslie Beggs were frustrated with that system — one they say inappropriately commodifies policies at many of California’s public community colleges — insulating top execs and boosting the bottom line — at the expense of the wellbeing and civil rights of students, faculty, and staff. 

"I didn't originally see running for trustee as an option,” Beggs said. “I'm an introvert. There's nothing I hate more than asking people for money to run a campaign.”

“But I couldn’t stand what I was seeing.” 

What she and DeMartini were seeing, the pair say, was that policies governing disciplinary proceedings in the Yosemite Community College District were not providing fundamental fairness for students and faculty at the district’s two campuses: Modesto Junior College in the Central Valley and Columbia College in the Sierra Nevada foothills. And there were no templates coming down from the top that purported to fix the problem.

Anne DeMartini
'The general reasons that people were against the changes was that it was gonna cost the district too much money,' said Anne DeMartini. (Mindful Media Photography for FIRE.)

So the women set out on what would become a years-long journey to craft a due process policy themselves — and against all odds, succeeded. Along the way, they won hearts and minds, convincing colleagues to prioritize fairness and other basic rights that previously had not been guaranteed.

Now, members of the YCCD community accused of wrongdoing enjoy robust due process rights, including a presumption of innocence, reasonable timelines by which to proceed through the disciplinary process, help of an advisor, and more. 

The sweeping change that benefits the more than 25,000 members of the district community started with just two of them.

‘You can just disappear from the schedule.’

In 2014, FIRE named Modesto Junior College one of its 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech. The previous year, the community college’s administrators stopped student Rob Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. 

With FIRE’s assistance, Van Tuinen sued MJC and won a landmark settlement. MJC agreed to pay Van Tuinen $50,000 and change its free expression policies to bring them in line with the school’s constitutional obligations.

The imbroglio put the small community college in national headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. 

When someone was brought up on disciplinary charges in YCCD, the women said, the disciplinary process could be a black hole. 

About three years ago, with the Van Tuinen debacle still relatively fresh in their minds, DeMartini and Beggs grew concerned the district was falling short of its constitutional obligations to provide due process to those accused of violating college policies. 

When someone was brought up on disciplinary charges in YCCD, the women said, the disciplinary process could be a black hole. 

“The existing process worked great sometimes,” Beggs said, “but there was leeway for the process to be used unfairly.”

That’s because much of the policy language was opaque. That meant enforcement actions could be murky. And it was an open secret, they say, that disciplinary action was routinely selective: Those in tight with higher-ups got off easy; boat-rockers and the unpopular faced investigations that dragged on for months — without ever being told what they were accused of doing. Those called to hearings had no guarantee of time to properly prepare, nor the right to bring an advisor. And those are just a few of the procedural shortcomings.

Adjunct faculty, the women said, were particularly vulnerable.

“Adjuncts didn’t know they had any rights at all,” said Beggs, who was previously the college’s union adjunct rep. “They tended to be really afraid because you’re like a seasonal employee. You have no job rights. You had nothing.”

“You can just disappear from the schedule.”

‘Two months wondering what the hell you did.’

For more than two years, Beggs and DeMartini say they navigated pushback and bureaucracy in an effort to get their policy passed.

“There was a lot of ‘Oh, it’ll never work. It can’t be done.’ That kind of thing,” Beggs said of the discussions with fellow trustees and administrators.

The substantive sticking points for the naysayers, DeMartini said, were money and power.

“The general reasons that people were against the changes was that it was gonna cost the district too much money,” DeMartini said. “We had one attorney that said, ‘You’ll have to hire an attorney for every investigation, and it’s gonna cost you, minimum, $40,000 for every investigation.’”

There were also concerns about requiring cross-examination, specifically in investigations under Title IX, the federal law forbidding sex discrimination in educational institutions that recieve federal funding. New Title IX regulations rolled out this year have addressed those concerns, mandating parties be granted an opportunity for cross-examination in sexual misconduct cases, but also that such cross-examination be conducted through an advisor, so that the accuser and accused do not have to interact directly. The parties may also be separated physically, as long as they can both see and hear the questioning taking place.

“We have it clearly [in the policy] that you can be in separate rooms and that the actual respondent and complainant don’t get to ask the questions,” said DeMartini. “It’s their representatives.”

“We tried to make those things more acceptable to the group,” DeMartini said of those who objected to the changes, Title IX-related or otherwise. “I think some people just didn’t like the idea. This took power away from certain people.”

DeMartini alleges that loopholes in aspects of the previous conduct codes worked to the advantage of a few unscrupulous administrators.

Anne DeMartini and Leslie Beggs at Modesto Junior College
The duo's due process policy is one of the best in the nation, according to FIRE's policy experts. (Mindful Media Photography for FIRE.)

“They always intimidated people by saying, ‘Oh you’ve been accused of something.’ You ask, ‘What is it?’ ‘Oh, we’re not going to tell you.’ Then, two months later; ‘Oh, there wasn’t anything there. Nevermind.’”

“After you’ve been suffering for two months wondering what the hell you did.”

The Stepford Trustees

There was also the matter of navigating the complicated — and lengthy — process for getting policies vetted and approved, an overview of which is delineated in a five-page document with seven steps, multiple charts, and references to other board policies. That process can either start with a CCLC corporation template, or an idea from a trustee.

To that end, the pre-vetted templates crafted by CCLC attorneys make that process go more smoothly, and are therefore strongly encouraged.

But Beggs and DeMartini say the quick and easy approach discourages critical thinking about how the policies getting pushed through actually impact lives.

“I call the CCLC model of governance the ‘Stepford Trustee Model,’” Beggs said.

“It’s like they want us to have the veneer of accountability, without having any actual transparency.”

“They tell you you’re in charge. Then they give you the policies and say, ‘Approve these.’ If you get too involved in how they actually are worked out, then you get accused of micromanaging.”

“It’s like they want us to have the veneer of accountability, without having any actual transparency.”

But, DeMartini notes, “I wasn’t a good Stepford trustee.” And neither was Beggs. 

For their new endeavor, they would insist on real accountability and transparency. 

And they found an ally in YCCD Chancellor Henry Yong.

“Dr. Yong allowed Leslie and me and our three-member Board Policy and Procedure Committee to pursue this policy,” DeMartini said. “He allowed resources and study sessions for the entire Board. Without Henry’s assistance, we could not have done this at all.  Previous chancellors wouldn’t have allowed it.”

And with growing support, the policy’s development ultimately became one of a handful of the board’s annual “Special Priorities.”

‘Due Process rights are basic human rights…’

The pair’s resulting due process policy, which passed unanimously in April after a final reading on the board’s first post-COVID video call, is groundbreaking in its uncompromising commitment to those ideals.

“To our knowledge, we’re the first people in the state of California at the community college level to create a due process policy and get it passed,” DeMartini said. “There were controversies about it along the way, but it’s big change from where we were five years ago, when we got listed as one of the 10 Worst Colleges for denying free speech.”

The policy commits YCCD to providing “fairness and equality” and “fair treatment” not only to students and faculty, but “for all members of the District community, including faculty, staff, students, volunteers, trustees, contract employees, and others in the YCCD community,”

“Due Process rights are basic human rights and are enumerated in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution,” declares the document’s opening paragraph. “By establishing fair and equitable dispute resolution policies, it is the intent of the Governing Board of the Yosemite Community College District to respond to allegations of misconduct with a balance that protects the accuser while affording the safeguards of due process for the accused.”

Accusers and accused now enjoy a broad set of rights and reasonable timelines by which to proceed through any disciplinary process. For the accused, a presumption of innocence, the right to know the charges against them, the right to cross-examination of their accuser, time to prepare a defense, and more — are all now standard.

From ‘10 Worst’ to a first

“This policy is remarkable,” said Susan Kruth, FIRE’s Director of Procedural Advocacy. Kruth, along with the board’s attorneys, helped DeMartini and Beggs refine the language of the policy before it was ultimately passed. 

Of the hundreds of policies Kruth sees in her work, she said YCCD’s is something special.

“I was blown away by how broadly applicable it is, and the sheer number of specifics Anne and Leslie were able to get in there,” Kruth said. “It really is unique from what I’ve seen in how strong it is.”

“Anne and Leslie put in a huge amount of work to make sure this policy guaranteed robust procedural protections, and to make sure the board approved it,” Kruth said, noting that the policy applies to students, professors, and staff, and to allegations of non-sexual and sexual misconduct. “As a result of their efforts, all campus community members will receive fair hearings before being punished for alleged misconduct.”

That’s something other colleges should do — but, more often, do not.

“FIRE hopes other colleges and universities across the country recognize what YCCD has recognized,” Kruth said, “that all campus community members facing potentially serious punishments should be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves first.” 

Leslie Beggs
'I’m writing policies that will prevent somebody who’s not a good person, who doesn’t care, from doing the wrong thing,' said Leslie Beggs. (Mindful Media Photography for FIRE.)

DeMartini and Beggs say they hope their due process policy will remain on the books long after they someday move on from their trustee positions. 

“I’ve heard people say, ‘You don’t need this policy or that policy, because so-and-so in this position wouldn’t abuse it,’” Beggs said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care that we have nice people right now. I’m not writing policies for the best people. I’m writing policies that will prevent somebody who’s not a good person, who doesn’t care, from doing the wrong thing.’ For me, that’s just my philosophical starting point.”

Now at the end of their due process policy journey, the women hope it will be just the beginning of a more equitable future for the Yosemite Community College District community. One where fairness and equity are non-negotiable, and college leaders think more critically — as Beggs and DeMartini did — about how policies given a perfunctory approval can, and do, change lives.

“It was about doing what’s right, instead of what makes us look good,” Beggs said of her commitment to improve that system. 

“And about doing what’s right for the institution as a whole, instead of just for the people at the top.”

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