A Utah State student’s reports of racist bullying that ultimately forced her to take her own life had fallen on deaf ears, a lawsuit alleges.
Jerusha Sanjeevi, 24, a Ph.D. candidate at Utah State University, allegedly suffered eight long months of bullying from fellow students who called her names and even conjured rumors that she was mentally unstable.
Sanjeevi enrolled at the university in the fall of 2016, just after graduating from Minnesota State University with a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Almost immediately, two students in her cohort singled her out, saying that she had a “weird Asian name,” joking that she was “bipolar” and calling her “stupid,”The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Her boyfriend, Matthew Bick, filed the suit on Thursday on behalf of her parents, who live in Malaysia. It includes email and text conversations between Sanjeevi and her professors, which allegedly show their uncertainty in addressing her complaints.
According to the suit, one of the two students — whom Sanjeevi had worked with at a professor’s lab and as a teaching assistant — was particularly relentless.
The female student allegedly discredited her in class, said that she smelled like Indian food, claimed that dark skin was “a sign of inferiority” and spread rumors that she was mentally unstable because she was worried about being deported.
Sanjeevi first reported her concerns to their professor in September 2016. However, the professor, who allegedly had a close relationship with the other student, “dismissed [the reports] as a misunderstanding” and continued to give preferential treatment to that student.
The following month, Sanjeevi celebrated Diwali in hopes of bridging cultural gaps. Unfortunately, the bullying only got worse after, with the other student mocking her research on rape and sexual pathology.
“Every day I dread going to class now because I sit 3 feet from my White bully,” Sanjeevi texted a friend a few months into the program. She took her own life in April 2017.
According to the suit, Sanjeevi talked to at least five professors, the university’s counseling center, its student conduct office and affirmative action department. The psychologist at the counseling center dismissed her concerns, concluding that she “rarely puts in the time required of a graduate student and tends to procrastinate.”
“To be honest, I am defeated and at a loss as to what to do at this point to make her stop. I have heard that she has been spreading these rumors even to faculty. Because I do not have institutional power in comparison to her, my faculty have not believed me even though I have asked for help repeatedly,” Sanjeevi told a professor in a final email, according to Deseret News.
“I do not know what to do at this point except accept defeat. I just needed you to know the truth before I leave.”
The suit, filed against the university, the psychology department head, and several professors and students, includes claims for wrongful death, gross negligence and constitutional violations for discrimination. It also seeks an unspecified amount for damages.
“[They] knew Sanjeevi was struggling,” said attorney Richard Kaplan. “And they failed to act despite repeated pleas for help.”
On Friday, university spokeswoman Amanda DeRito described the incident as “a tragic event that had a huge impact on the psychology department and on our entire university.”
“We cannot release private and protected student records or comment on the specifics of this case, but 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,” she said.
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