Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
A Utah State University student 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 a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The posthumous case focuses on Jerusha Sanjeevi, who was a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate. It alleges the university’s lack of response violated her civil rights, and contends that a pattern of favoritism and racism has played out for years within the psychology program at the northern 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.
“It seemed so appalling when we first started to look at it,” said attorney Richard Kaplan. “And the more we looked at it, it didn’t get any better.”
Sanjeevi enrolled at USU in the fall of 2016. Almost immediately, two students in her cohort singled her out, the lawsuit said. They made fun of her “weird Asian name,” joked that she was bipolar, and called her “stupid.” They told their classmates that Sanjeevi wouldn’t have made it into the program if she hadn’t been “given a handout” as an international student from Malaysia.
One of those students, in particular, was relentless, the suit said. Sanjeevi worked with the classmate in a professor’s lab and as a teaching assistant. The other woman would discredit her while instructing classes, say she smelled like Indian food, talk about how dark skin was “a sign of inferiority” and spread rumors that Sanjeevi was mentally unstable because she was worried about being deported, it said.
As exhibits to the case, filed in U.S District Court, the suit includes several email and text conversations between psychology professors that showed they weren’t certain how to respond to Sanjeevi’s continuing complaints. The suit alleges they never directly addressed the allegations reported by Sanjeevi.
The lawsuit is filed against the university, the psychology department head, multiple professors and some students. Amanda DeRito, a USU spokeswoman, said Friday that Sanjeevi’s suicide was “a tragic event that had a huge impact on the psychology department and on our entire university.”
The school will not comment on the specifics of the case, she said. But she added, “We strongly dispute the facts and allegations in the complaint. We believe Utah State took all appropriate action to address interpersonal issues between students in the department.”
Sanjeevi died in April 2017. Kaplan is representing Sanjeevi’s boyfriend, Matthew Bick, and they filed the case on behalf of Sanjeevi’s parents, who still live in Malaysia where she was born and raised.
“The family in Malaysia can’t adequately be compensated for the loss of a life,” Kaplan added. “It’s altogether too devastating. But this is the only way we have of helping.”
The lawsuit includes claims for wrongful death and gross negligence, as well as constitutional violations for discrimination in an educational environment. Kaplan said they are seeking unspecified financial damages.
While Kaplan suggests the bullying and the school’s mishandling of Sanjeevi’s concerns led to her suicide, experts caution against drawing such a direct link and say typically, many factors contribute.
Utah State has been at the center of several lawsuits in recent years — including one that alleged a similar and pervasive atmosphere of discrimination within the piano department. The university has also come under fire for its handling of sexual assault cases.
‘I dread going to class’
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. 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.
On Sept. 19 — about a week after USU promoted a mental health awareness project — Sanjeevi told Bick, her boyfriend, that she was considering leaving the school.
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 — where 83% of students are white — 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.
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.
Some of the professors in the department recognized the concerns at that point and started talking internally about how they should handle the situation. They “knew Sanjeevi was struggling” and at risk, Kaplan said. “And they failed to act despite repeated pleas for help.”
Sanjeevi kept talking to faculty. By the end of the semester, they suggested possibly moving her to another research lab or possibly dismissing both her and the other student from the program. In their conversations, which Kaplan received through public records requests, the professors suggested both women were to blame. One said it was “getting messy and ugly.” No one ever investigated, the suit alleges, and the student who was Sanjeevi’s co-worker denied wrongdoing.
‘She was rejected and turned away’
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. He concluded Sanjeevi “rarely puts in the time required of a graduate student and tends to procrastinate," a report excerpt said.
Despite that, DeRito said in her statement, “We encourage students who are facing any mental health issues to seek help through Counseling and Psychology Services or USU Student Health Center.”
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. The office had received previous complaints about that same student, the lawsuit alleges, and the school has heard from other international students in the psychology department who have reported similar harassment in the past.
One of Sanjeevi’s friends reached out separately to the school to say that she was worried about how Sanjeevi was being treated. Sanjeevi had told her that she felt dismissed and like she had nowhere to turn after reporting her concerns to so many people.
Another 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.”
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.”
Kaplan believes that shows a disregard for Sanjeevi’s death and an inclination to not examine any shortcomings. He hopes the lawsuit will spur changes. “Jerusha came there on a good trajectory,” he said. “None of this had to happen."