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Former professor accused of on-campus harassment, CSU’s investigation dismissed

Illustration showing an abstract female side profile with blue elements in her skin, representing the color of the Sexual Assault Awareness Flag. Behind the drawn figure is a building on Colorado State University's campus where a harassment incident occurred on-campus
(Graphic illustration by Amy Noble, photo by Anna von Pechmann | The Collegian)

Editor’s note: Names of survivors have been replaced by pseudonyms to ensure their and their families’ safety and privacy. The accused and other sources are referenced by their given names. 

When Colorado State University student Lacey Mitchell met construction management assistant professor Ronald Holt, she remembers connecting with him over their shared love for artwork. 

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“He was the first construction teacher I had,” Mitchell said. “He taught Construction 150.” 

In the fall of 2019, Mitchell was trying out for a beauty pageant. Though she had her headshots taken, she agreed to a photoshoot offered by Holt. 

“Harmless, right?” Mitchell said. “I’ve done a million photoshoots with men who are safe and sane human beings, and nothing has gone wrong. I literally had him in my classes. … CSU has put all their trust in this man, so why shouldn’t I?”

They were set to meet on campus at the preconstruction building. It began as a “normal” photoshoot, she recalled.

Holt brought three jackets of his own — an aviator jacket, a red button-up and a jean jacket, according to the Colorado State University Police Department report that was later filed.

Mitchell said she didn’t think much about it at first.

On the way to the third floor to take additional photos, she remembers seeing students studying on the second floor. 

“I felt safe,” Mitchell said. 

On the third floor, Holt unlocked a door to a private area and let it close, the door locking behind them, Mitchell recalled. The police report indicates that CSUPD was able to confirm the location where the incident occurred. 

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The Collegian went to the building and confirmed that a key is needed to access the third floor. 

The CSUPD report states that the photoshoot became “increasingly uncomfortable and sexual,” according to Mitchell. 

Mitchell asked him to leave the room while she changed, but Holt stayed “right outside,” the report reads.

“She said she was nervous changing her clothes and that she buttoned up the shirt,” according to the report. “(Mitchell) stated that, again, Holt immediately unbuttoned her shirt and tried to open the shirt to expose her breasts.” 

Holt “coerced” Mitchell to remove her shirt and bra, she later recalled in an interview with The Collegian

I never gave him permission. You can see how scared I was. In that situation, I was just trying not to get raped.” -Lacey Mitchell, CSU student

“He kept (the door) wide open and was trying to peek around the whole time to watch me change and turn it into a game,” Mitchell said. 

She then put on one of the jackets Holt brought upon his request, the police report stated. Holt proceeded to touch her inappropriately and make comments about Mitchell’s body. 

“I was scared because he was making these comments like, ‘You make it so hard to behave myself’ and was indicating that he was going to get aggressive if I didn’t go with what he was saying,” Mitchell said.

According to the report, Holt continued to ask Mitchell to keep unzipping the jacket she was wearing. Mitchell told police she consented to unzipping the jacket further until it was lower than she was comfortable with. 

Mitchell explained that she was going along with what Holt wanted to “get it over with,” according to the report.

“She said she was topless in his jacket and felt like she could not run out of the room,” the report reads. “She said she was alone with Holt on the third floor and that she did not want it to escalate. (Mitchell) stated that she did not want to push Holt to do something to her.” 

In the police report, Mitchell said that she was “immediately uncomfortable” when they entered the “secluded” third floor. 

“I didn’t feel like there was anywhere for me to go,” Mitchell said later in an interview with The Collegian.

She said the photoshoot remained professional until the door closed. 

Mitchell said she went along with Holt until he stated that he wanted to see her fully nude, which she said she did not consent to. 

“I’ll never forget it,” Mitchell said. “He gave me a look in his eyes like he was a lion. Like he was staring at fresh meat. And there’s no better way to describe it other than just pure anger because I said, ‘No.’” 

After the photoshoot was over, she got dressed to leave. As they went downstairs, Holt tried to kiss Mitchell on the lips, according to the police report. She turned her head and he ended up kissing her on the cheek, Mitchell recalled.

“My body didn’t feel like it was mine for a while after that, especially my chest because that’s the part that he touched,” Mitchell said later in an interview with The Collegian. “I never gave him permission. You can see how scared I was. In that situation, I was just trying not to get raped.” 

Mitchell said she got in her car and began crying, thinking she cheated on her boyfriend. 

When she went to CSUPD on Sept. 28, 2019, they explained there wasn’t enough evidence to press criminal charges, according to Mitchell. 

A pretext call between Holt and Mitchell was taped at the police station for additional evidence. According to the police report, there were multiple attempts to reach Holt at the station. 

Holt said that he was attracted to Mitchell, stating that “any guy would be,” according to a phone call recording that was obtained by The Collegian

Earlier in the recording, he explained that he likes kissing any pretty girl, even though his wife didn’t always appreciate it. 

Shortly after Mitchell’s photoshoot with Holt, University student Ashley Roberts reportedly had a similar experience with the professor.

I’ve never really had a relationship with a professor where I go to their office hours,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Is this how professors act?’ I was questioning myself.” -Ashley Roberts, CSU student

In August of 2019, Roberts got a concussion from cheerleading. Her injury required testing accommodations for her classes. 

That fall, Roberts took Construction 150, the class Mitchell was previously enrolled in.

Holt was teaching that semester and was “super understanding (and) nice,” according to Roberts. 

She ended up failing an exam, resulting in her attending Holt’s office hours. 

While there, Roberts recalled him asking personal questions she was uncomfortable discussing, including tattoos. 

Holt said that he would consider getting a tattoo of Roberts in a video she recorded in his office. 

“I would probably do a henna or something first and see if I liked it, but I don’t know what I would want,” he said in the video. “I mean, Betty Boop or a picture of you.” 

In the video, Holt encouraged Roberts to quit cheer.

“You really need to quit, I’m serious,” Holt said. “You’re a beautiful young lady; you don’t want to screw that up.” 

He continued to talk to Roberts about quitting. 

“You might throw a little fit and say, ‘Hey, my life is more important, my parents are more important than you are, my boyfriend is more important than you are, my professor is way more important than you are,’” Holt said. 

Holt said he was an artist and could draw on Roberts whenever she wanted, Roberts said. Roberts declined the offer. However, Holt persisted, saying her grade in the class could be influenced, Roberts recalled. 

“Maybe I’ll draw a rose on your belly button,” he said in the video.

Roberts said he showed her previous photos he had taken. During this, Roberts recalls Holt putting his arm on her lower back, in a way that made her uncomfortable.

Holt later asked if Roberts would be interested in taking photos with him, stating that she would look good behind his camera, Roberts recalled. 

She recalled him talking about his wife and commenting on younger women.

In the video, Holt said that his wife was 18 when they got married, turning 19 a week later. He was 21.  

“I tell people I raised my wife, taught her how to drive,” Holt said in the video.    

Toward the end of the conversation, Roberts circled back to her exam, the initial reason she came in.

She recalled asking about what avenues she could pursue to help with her exam. Roberts said Holt insisted that she take the exam in his office instead of going through The Institute of Teaching and Learning. He continued arguing back and forth with Roberts about taking the exam in his office, she said.

They had made it very clear that, whatever they were going to do, we would not be informed of what was going to happen.”– Kellie Mitchell, mother of Lacey Mitchell

Eventually, she said she would have to check her schedule and left the office. 

“It was a lot,” Roberts said. “I was there for 45 minutes.” 

According to Roberts, she ended up retaking the exam in the TILT building. 

Though there was no official police report filed, Roberts said she spoke with Assistant Director for Complaints and Disabilities Jennifer Mayhew. 

After the discussion, Mayhew informed CSUPD of the events, according to an email sent from Mayhew to Roberts. However, Roberts said she did not receive anything from the police following up. 

She didn’t attend Holt’s class after the meeting in his office. Roberts said she was later informed that Holt would no longer be teaching.

After Roberts left Holt’s office on Oct. 2, 2019, she explained she didn’t feel right. She questioned if she was overreacting. 

“I’ve never really had a relationship with a professor where I go to their office hours,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Is this how professors act?’ I was questioning myself.”

Roberts was under the impression that action had been taken when she was told he left campus, but Mitchell’s parents wanted more clarification.

Kellie Mitchell, Lacey Mitchell’s mother, demanded a meeting with CSU President Joyce McConnell to discuss safety measures and a plan for action. 

Email records reviewed by The Collegian between Kellie Mitchell, her husband and the Office of the President indicate they had the intention of meeting with McConnell on Sept. 30, 2019. 

When they got there, McConnell was not present. Instead, the two met with Craig Chesson, associate dean of students, and Jody Donovan, dean of students. 

“They had made it very clear that, whatever they were going to do, we would not be informed of what was going to happen,” Kellie Mitchell said. “They would move forward with it. It wasn’t something we could inquire about.”

Lacey Mitchell’s parents were given a pamphlet covering sexual misconduct and a packet titled “Discipline against University Community Members Found to be Responsible for Committing Interpersonal Violence.”

According to a University statement sent to The Collegian, the president is limited to what she can speak on in relation to personnel matters, especially when there is an ongoing investigation. 

The president did not attend the meeting with Mitchell’s parents in order to avoid causing them “further frustration given these constraints or allowing for the misconception that the president is free to speak about these matters,” according to the statement.

Kellie Mitchell said it felt like the University wanted to have the problem go away and not become a “big” issue.

“They never put (news) out (about the incident),” Kellie Mitchell said. “What if this happened to other women, … especially in construction management? They might be scared to say anything because he was kind of a bigger deal there. It’s like (the University) just wanted it to go away and be quiet.”

According to CSUPD’s public information officer, Dell Rae Ciaravola, public safety alerts are not sent out to the general public when it is a specific, targeted case, only when there is a broader threat. 

In this situation, the police already knew who the perpetrator was and did not need to send out an alert to get more information. 

Kellie Mitchell said that CSUPD never contacted her or her husband after their initial meeting with the police on Sept. 30, 2019. She explained that they would only talk to Lacey Mitchell. 

On Nov. 9, The Collegian was contacted by a Fort Collins criminal defense lawyer, Joseph A. Gavaldon. He said that Holt, his client, would not be available for comment.”

“(The police) were even very, very hesitant,” Kellie Mitchell said. “When (Lacey) was adamant about wanting to do the (phone call recordings), they made it so much so that we were like, ‘Should you for sure do this?’ They didn’t think he would talk, and he did.”

In Guggenheim Hall, an on-campus building, there are three murals painted by Holt. 

Ronald J. Holt’s signature on a mural in the Simon Guggenheim Hall of Household Arts on W Laurel St. (Matt Tackett | The Collegian)

One mural, painted by Holt in June of 2011, shows a ram standing on a rock with a quote from Albert Schweitzer reading, “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” 

“I think my life is worth a little more than a retirement,” Lacey Mitchell said. “And who knows how many other countless girls he’s done that to. Is that worth being able to retire? I don’t think so. … I have to walk by his room and all of his accolades, his mural and feel like he’s a great person.”

According to Holt’s LinkedIn account, he is retired from the University. However, he chose to resign from his position on Oct. 7, 2019, according to a University statement emailed to The Collegian.

CSU placed Holt on administrative leave on Oct. 4, 2019, Ciaravola wrote in an email to The Collegian, “pending an investigation by CSU’s Office of Equal Opportunity.” 

He resigned before the University could finish the OEO investigation. 

The OEO investigation was an employment investigation, not a criminal investigation, Ciaravola wrote. The office “took immediate action upon learning about this situation without (Mitchell) being required to file a formal complaint against Holt,” according to Ciaravola. 

The University police did not pursue criminal charges against Holt because the evidence “did not meet the standard of probable cause,” according to Ciaravola.  

This means that the case did not reach the criminal threshold to arrest or press charges against the suspect, Ciaravola wrote.

“Because of this determination, CSUPD did not take the case to the (District Attorney’s) office, and the note of ‘exceptionally cleared’ was entered into the (police) report,” Ciaravola wrote, meaning there was not evidence of criminal activity. 

This was determined by several officers, investigators and leadership staff who worked on the case, Ciaravola wrote. 

“This decision was based on a deep and professional understanding of criminal law and on years of experience in working with the District Attorney’s office,” Ciaravola wrote. “While CSUPD was not able to determine that Holt’s behavior rose to criminal conduct, they recognized that the behavior was concerning and worked to support the administrative investigation as much as possible.”

On Nov. 9, The Collegian was contacted by a Fort Collins criminal defense lawyer, Joseph A. Gavaldon. He said that Holt, his client, would not be available for comment. 

The aftermath  

Mitchell said that sexual harassment is not something anyone is safe from.

“There’s no guidebook for this,” Mitchell said. “You’re not protected because you’re at home. You’re not protected because it’s a family member. You’re not protected if it’s a best friend. It can happen with and to anyone, and I’ve learned that now.”

I want to make it clear to other women that have been through this that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s not our fault.”-Lacey Mitchell, CSU student

Assistant Director of Victim Services at the Women and Gender Advocacy Center Casey Malsam explained that people are taught to be nice and to not say ‘No’ outright.

“If we can change the framing of putting the onus on the person who is experiencing the violence, in a way, that’s victim blaming in and of itself,” Malsam said. “What can a person do to protect themselves from this? It is implying that they have the control to keep themselves from being harmed.”

Director of Victim Advocacy and Outreach for the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center Katie Abeyta explained that it is difficult to say that following certain steps will guarantee safety from sexual assault or harassment. 

“The fact of the matter is someone could be following all the quote-unquote safe things to do and still experience an assault,” Abeyta said.  

Abeyta explained that the responsibility for preventing sexual assault or harassment lies with the perpetrator, as well as with members of society, holding others accountable to show that any form of sexual violence is unacceptable.

“I want to make it clear to other women that have been through this that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s not our fault,” Mitchell said. 

Editor’s Note: Serena Bettis, Lauryn Bolz, Jake Sherlock and Abby Vander Graaff contributed to this story. Sommer Ingram Dean with the Student Press Law Center provided legal advice for this story.

Laura Studley can be reached as news@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurastudley_

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