Utah university's inaction on racist bullying blamed for student's suicide

Jerusha Sanjeevi (Facebook photo)

The boyfriend of a Malaysian student of Indian origin, who killed herself in 2017, is suing Utah State University for not taking action despite her reaching out to university staff reporting relentless racist bullying. News reports say Jerusha Sanjeevi, a Malaysian of Indian and Chinese descent, and a Ph.D. student at the university’s psychology department, committed suicide after being subjected to eight months of racist bullying by classmates. She is said to have died of acute self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to the CBS 2 affiliate KTUV, the complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on Aug. 1, by Mathew Bick, on behalf of Sanjeevi’s parents who live in Malaysia. It accuses the university and a few members of its faculty for ignoring Sanjeevi’s repeated pleas for protection against a classmate she claimed bullied her. Sanjeevi was born and raised in Malaysia.

Sanjeevi, who graduated from Minnesota State University with a Master’s degree in clinical psychology, enrolled in Utah State’s psychology Ph.D. program in fall 2016.

According to an Aug. 2 report in the Herald Journal, the lawsuit names the university and three psychology faculty members as defendants. Those names are Gretchen Peacock, then the psychology department head; Melissa Tehee, a professor in the department and psychology emeritus professor, Carolyn Barcus.

“I’m hoping that USU will take a hard look in the mirror,” Richard Kaplan, an attorney with Anderson & Karrenberg, the Salt Lake firm representing the plaintiff, told the Hearld Journal. “I’m hoping that it will do what’s necessary to make diversity work there,” he said. “ And I’m also hoping to help the family in Malaysia with their circumstances financially.” But USU spokesman Amanda DeRito disputed the claims detailed in the lawsuit, the Herald Journal report said.

Although the Herald Journal did not name the USU students who were also named as defendants in the lawsuit for allegedly bullying Sanjeevi, a Aug. 7 KTUV report identified one defendant as Tamara Barrett. The lawsuit argues Barret and the other unnamed student “received preferential treatment due to their connections to the program’s Native American outreach. It claims that Barrett and others made fun of Sanjeevi’s “weird” name, her color, her culture and told her she smelled like Indian food.

Over the months, they also started calling her bipolar and after it was found that she had gone to complain about her bullies to university authorities, and by Spring semester, they began calling her a “whore” and a “slut.” 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.”

When Sanjeevi first reported her concerns about her student co-worker in September 2016, the lawsuit says that 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. The lawsuit also says that Sanjeevi had at least once confessed to Bick that she wanted to leave the school.

News reports describe Sanjeevi as an “exemplary student,” citing the lawsuit. She graduated from high school in Malaysia at 15. A year later, she was taking college courses.

By January 2012, she’d moved to the U.S. at age 19 and, in 2013, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Bemidji State University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology.

However, the lawsuit says that Sanjeevi struggled with mental health issues. At one point, she wrote that she’d lived with depression for more than half her life. She is also said to be a rape survivor, but no details about that incident are reported. The Herald Journal reports that according to the lawsuit, there has been at least one incident where Sanjeevi rushed out of a classroom during a discussion about rape. The lawsuit says that the incident provided faculty with serious warning signs that Sanjeevi might be at increased risk of suicide.

According to the lawsuit, Sanjeevi said that her bully is “Native American but ‘presents white.” The lawsuit further states that the bully’s idea of “racial hierarchy permeated the program and tormented Jerusha until her death.” Eighty-three percent of students at the school are white, the lawsuit claims.

Kaplan told the Herald News that the university’s actions then and now show “a disregard for Sanjeevi’s death and an inclination to not examine any shortcomings.” Hoping that the lawsuit helps in bringing about changes, he said, “Jerusha came there on a good trajectory. None of this had to happen."

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