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Student kills herself after 8 months of racist bullying; lawsuit alleges school did nothing

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The family of a Malaysian student has filed a lawsuit alleging that her Utah school failed to do anything to stop the racist bullying that led to her dying by suicide.

Jerusha Sanjeevi, a 24-year-old woman studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at Utah State University, died by suicide in April 2017. “Every day I dread going to class now because I sit three feet from my White bully,” Sanjeevi texted her friend months before she killed herself, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week on her family’s behalf.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 1 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, alleges a pattern of bullying, the Ph.D. program’s failure to address the bullying and a failure to mediate intercultural conflict between Sanjeevi and her alleged bully, who was Native American , but Sanjeevi said, “played White.”
Sanjeevi was of Chinese and Indian heritage but was born and raised in Malaysia.

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 claims.

The alleged bullying began almost immediately after Sanjeevi enrolled at USU in 2016. 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 after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, it said.

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.

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

A heartbreaking note was found that indicates Sanjeevi had given up hope for a resolution and had reached a highly emotional state. “When something like this happens, people ask why,” she wrote. “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 in her final note. “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.”

USU spokesman Amanda DeRito disputed the claims detailed in the lawsuit complaint in a prepared statement:

“Jerusha Sanjeevi’s suicide was a tragic event that had a huge impact on the Psychology department and on our entire university.

“She was a promising student, and her death tremendously affected her fellow students, as well as staff and faculty in the department,” the response states. “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.”

USU’s statement encourages students facing mental health issues to seek assistance at the school’s Counseling and Psychology Services program or the USU Student Health Center.

“I’m hoping that USU will take a hard look in the mirror,” said Richard Kaplan, an attorney with Anderson & Karrenberg, the Salt Lake firm representing the plaintiff. “I’m hoping that it will do what’s necessary to make diversity work there. And to avoid these kind of multiple relationships. And I’m also hoping to help the family in Malaysia with their circumstances financially.”

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  1. RE: Student kills herself after 8 months of racist bullying; Lawsuit alleges school did nothing: Please consider re-wording how you describe death by suicide. Many major news outlets have recently changed how they describe suicide at the recommendation of the folks at suicide prevention. The media may have unwittingly been encouraging suicide by how it has been framed.

    Language Matters: Why We Don’t Say “Committed Suicide”
    Whenever a celebrity dies by suicide, the world pays attention, and the suicide prevention community braces for impact. Why? We know that the media will often circulate unsafe messaging for days after the tragedies and that this will have a suicide exposure effect on many people who are already vulnerable to suicide.

    Please read full article for recommended language in describing a death by suicide.

  2. RE: Student kills herself after 8 months of racist bullying; Lawsuit alleges school did nothing: It’s heartbreaking to hear and she was studying for her PhD in Psychology! I understand how she felt when you don’t know and you believe you’re trapped.

  3. RE: Student kills herself after 8 months of racist bullying; Lawsuit alleges school did nothing: Hope those women who bullied her and the school psychologist get hit by karma soon!


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