KUALA LUMPUR, August 6 – A Malaysian student at Utah State University (USU) in the United States died by suicide after professors allegedly didn’t address her complaints of bullying by classmates over her ethnicity, a federal lawsuit said.
The Daily Beast reported that Jerusha Sanjeevi, a 24-year-old psychology student of mixed Chinese and Indian parentage studying for a PhD, killed herself in April 2017 after suffering racist bullying by her classmates for eight months, according to the lawsuit filed by Jerusha’s boyfriend, Matthew Bick.
The lawsuit named as defendants USU, the then-head of the psychology department, two psychology professors, and two USU students who allegedly bullied Jerusha.
“Every day I dread going to class now because I sit three feet from my white bully,” Jerusha reportedly texted her friend months before she ended her life, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint filed on the behalf of Jerusha’s family last Thursday in US District Court in Salt Lake City alleged wrongful death, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It reportedly contended that USU’s lack of action, even after Jerusha complained about the alleged bullying to the psychology department head and professors, violated her civil rights.
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 was quoted as saying.
According to the lawsuit, 83 per cent of students at USU are white.
Other students in Jerusha’s cohort allegedly made fun of her “weird” Asian name, told her she smelled like Indian food, and said her darker skin colour made her less deserving of a research position, the lawsuit claimed.
One student reportedly said, “Asian researcher names are so weird” and “Asians only want to please their parents,” the complaint stated.
The Herald Journal reported the lawsuit as saying that a student had told the plaintiff’s lawyers that another student would text Jerusha images of Indian food and memes, asking her if they were “legitimate”.
“This was done despite the fact that (Sanjeevi) affirmed numerous times that she was not from India, but from Malaysia,” the student told attorneys.
The bulk of the bullying, alleged the lawsuit, came from one of Jerusha’s classmates. She and the alleged bully were the only two students in a psychology professor’s lab during the fall 2016 semester. The student accused of bullying and that professor were reportedly personal friends.
According to The Herald Journal, the complaint claimed that two of Jerusha’s bullies got preferential treatment because of their connections to the psychology programme’s Native American outreach.
The lawsuit reportedly claimed that the psychology professor, who is a Native American and director of the American Indian Support Project, allegedly gave the main alleged bully, all of the funding available to help her lab members pay for tuition, even though Jerusha was living on her teacher’s assistant stipend of US$5,000 a semester and “small amounts of money that her parents were sometimes able to send her”.
The psychology professor also gave all her research projects to the other student, the lawsuit alleged, with none assigned to Jerusha.
The complaint claimed that Jerusha’s alleged bully, according to students that the plaintiff’s lawyers spoke with, “started a narrative in the (psychology Ph.D. programme) about a ‘minority hierarchy’ which basically stated that if two parties were of a minority status, the one with the darker skin was the inferior of the two.”
Jerusha reportedly said her alleged bully was “Native American but ‘presents white’,” according to the lawsuit.
The alleged bully’s idea of “racial hierarchy permeated the programme and tormented Jerusha until her death,” the lawsuit claimed, according to The Herald Journal.
The alleged bully had also called the 24-year-old woman “slut” and “whore” whenever they passed each other in the hallways, said the complaint.
Jerusha, a rape survivor, reportedly struggled with depression for more than half her life.
The plaintiff’s attorney Richard Kaplan, who is a lawyer from Salt Lake firm Anderson & Karrenberg, told The Herald Journal that his firm was not claiming that USU had any general duty to prevent suicide, but that the varsity failed in its responsibility to Jerusha.
“What we’re alleging is that this particular programme had a duty not to turn away from a struggling student who was experiencing intercultural conflict,” Kaplan said. “And that’s what they did there.”
Kaplan also reportedly said he hoped to help provide financial assistance to Jerusha’s family in Malaysia.
USU spokeswoman Amanda DeRito reportedly disputed the allegations in the lawsuit.
“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,” DeRito was quoted saying.
“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.”