Lawsuit filed over suicide of Indian-origin student at Utah State University

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Jerusha Sanjeevi. Photo courtesy of Anderson & Karrenberg.

An Indian-origin student from Malaysia enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the psychology department of Utah State University (USU), Jerusha Sanjeevi, committed suicide in April, 2017, because of alleged racially motivated hostile bullying by classmates, and negligence by the university to address the issue, and now her boyfriend has filed a lawsuit on behalf of her parents.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Sanjeevi, 24 years old at the time of her death, was of Indian and Chinese origin. She was born and grew up in Malaysia before she came to the US for graduate studies.

At USU, Sanjeevi reported several times that she was being bullied by classmates over the color of her skin in the months before she died by suicide — but the professors and department chairperson she told never stepped in to help, according to the lawsuit filed last Thursday.

The lawsuit by the boyfriend, Matthew Bick, alleges the university’s lack of response violated Sanjeevi’s civil rights, and contends that a pattern of favoritism and racism has played out for years within the psychology program at the Utah school. International students, in particular, have faced a hostile environment there while faculty members knowingly allowed abuse to continue, it said. And it criticizes the university for failing to intervene even after Sanjeevi’s death, the Tribune reported.

The Daily Beast reported 83% of students at USU are white, the lawsuit claims. The department “knowingly allowed one of its students to be verbally abused, intimidated and subjected to cultural and racist discrimination by favored students over the course of eight months, when she was rendered so emotionally devastated and hopeless that she committed suicide.”

The lawsuit includes claims for wrongful death and gross negligence, as well as constitutional violations for discrimination in an educational environment, reported the Tribune. The law firm handling the case, Anderson & Karrenberg, said they are seeking unspecified financial damages.

Sanjeevi first reported her concerns about her student co-worker in September 2016, describing the comments to the professor who supervised them in her lab and as teaching assistants, reported the Tribune. The professor, though, had a close relationship with the other student, according to the lawsuit, which points to several Facebook posts and pictures of the two together.

The professor allegedly “dismissed [the reports] as a misunderstanding” and continued to show preferential treatment to the other student, giving her all of the research project assignments and none to Sanjeevi, it said.

Sanjeevi had applied to USU after graduating from Minnesota State University in spring 2016 with a master’s degree in clinical psychology. In her interview, she asked whether Utah State had an inclusive environment and felt assured that she would feel comfortable there, the suit said.

A few months in, she texted a close friend: “Every day I dread going to class now because I sit 3 feet from my white bully.”

Sanjeevi met with two other professors in the department in September, who convinced her to stay at the school and to try to work with the students harassing her. In October, Sanjeevi held a celebration of Deepavali, a Malaysian holiday also known as Diwali, and invited her classmates to try to bridge the gap. After that, according to the lawsuit, the harassment got worse, the Tribune reported.

The Tribune said Sanjeevi’s research focused on rape and sexual pathology — which she wanted to study after being raped as a child in Malaysia, the suit said. The other graduate assistant allegedly questioned whether Sanjeevi was actually assaulted. Later, during a discussion on rape in the course, Sanjeevi stepped out after feeling triggered. The student she worked with mocked her, the lawsuit alleges.

By the end of the semester, faculty suggested possibly moving Sanjeevi to another research lab or possibly dismissing both her and the other student from the program. Over the course of several months, Sanjeevi talked to at least five faculty members, as well as the school’s counseling center, student conduct office and affirmative action department. The psychologist she spoke to at the counseling center dismissed her concerns, according to the suit, the Tribune reported.

The Tribune reported Sanjeevi’s grades started to slip, and she requested an “incomplete” in a class. She met with an employee at the equal opportunity office multiple times to file a report of harassment. She told them, according to the lawsuit, that she was depressed and wished she could just focus on school without the distractions.

She was concerned “that a person in the field of psychology was making disparaging and stigmatizing remarks about mental illness when [they] are being trained to help people who are suffering with those exact issues.” And she worried that student might attack her.

The graduate student found out that Sanjeevi reported her to faculty and began calling her a “slut” and a “whore” when they passed in the hallways, the suit said.

A friend quoted in the lawsuit said: “It is especially mind blowing when you know the cultural differences between the U.S. and Eastern cultures, which made it nearly impossible for [Sanjeevi] to ask for help like this in the first place and then she was rejected and turned away.”

Jerusha Sanjeevi. Photo courtesy of Anderson & Karrenberg.

 

After Sanjeevi’s death, the department chair emailed the students in the psychology program. According to a copy of the message, she told them not to talk about the suicide publicly.

The lawsuit claims the school did nothing to investigate the bullying even then. When contacted by a school administrator asking if they should probe into the death, the department chairperson responded: “We will never be able to have all the ‘facts’ and information collection could be never-ending.”

The Daily Beast reported in an essay assignment, Sanjeevi wrote that “[e]ncountering racism even in graduate school in psychology reinforced a powerful lesson that I learned my entire life: that I can put a nice suit on, but I can never take my skin off.”

On April 22, 2017, she died of acute carbon monoxide poisoning. Her body was found two days later.

“When something like this happens, people ask why,” Sanjeevi wrote in a note before her death. “So I’m about to tell you why, and spare you the wondering.”

“I have lived with depression for over half my life, and somehow survived each episode. But each wave of sadness grew darker and longer,” she wrote. “I looked and looked for a lifeline. Until I realized that I didn’t deserve one. Because [the Department] succeeded at teaching me what poverty, violence, rape, and hunger somehow never did… When you dismissed the bullying report, you provided a final confirmation that I did, in fact, not matter.”

“The innocence of blonde hair and blue eyes could deny, with toxic ease, the ‘crazy’ ramblings of this dirty brown skin,” Sanjeevi continued. “Watching the department not only choose to not enact consequences, but to give an award to the sick person who bullied me, was the last nail in my coffin. My heart was broken.”

“Please be kinder in the future,” Sanjeevi wrote in her suicide note. “Please send my ashes to my parents.”

Amanda DeRito, a spokeswoman for the university, told The Daily Beast on Monday that Sanjeevi’s suicide was “a tragic event that had a huge impact on the psychology department and on our entire university” and said the university “strongly” disputes the allegations in the complaint.

“We believe Utah State took all appropriate action to address interpersonal issues between students in the department,” DeRito said, declining to comment further on the details of the case, citing the pending litigation.

In a phone interview to News India Times, Richard Kaplan, attorney at the Anderson and Karrenberg Law Firm, handling the lawsuit, said the parents of Sanjeevi are poor and live in “a difficult area” in Malaysia.

“Bullying is a dangerous thing, but adult bullying is not a new concept. It involves manipulation, undermining people, spreading rumors, talking behind their back. That can be very damaging,” said Kaplan, asked if it was unusual for doctoral-level students to be bullied by fellow students, in the US.

Kaplan agreed that Sanjeevi was a victim of racial abuse.

“Well, I can only tell you what the complaint alleges, that she was derided based on her skin color, based on her national origin, her culture, snidely criticized; there is a racial element. And after Trump was elected, she wondered if she might be deported,” said Kaplan.

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