“Every day I dread going to class now because I sit three feet from my white bully,” a Malaysian student at Utah State University texted her friend months before she killed herself, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week on her family’s behalf.
After eight months of racist bullying by classmates, 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate Jerusha Sanjeevi ended her life in April 2017, the 91-page complaint states. Sanjeevi was of Chinese and Indian heritage but was born and raised in Malaysia.
The lawsuit, filed by Sanjeevi’s boyfriend, Matthew Bick, names as defendants Utah State University, the head of the psychology department, some of the students who were in her cohort, and professors.
The complaint alleges negligence, wrongful death, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It contends that the university’s lack of action—even after Sanjeevi complained about the alleged bullying to professors and a department chairperson—violated her civil rights. The Herald Journal first reported on the lawsuit Friday.
Sanjeevi graduated from Minnesota State University with a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and then enrolled in Utah State’s psychology Ph.D. program in fall 2016.
Eighty-three percent of students at the school are white, the lawsuit claims.
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.
Other students in her cohort spread rumors about Sanjeevi, made fun of her “weird” Asian name, told her she smelled like Indian food, and derided her darker skin color as making her less deserving of a research position, according to the lawsuit.
One of the students repeatedly made derisive comments about Asians, including that “Asian researcher names are so weird” and “Asians only want to please their parents,” the complaint alleges. Members of the cohort told Sanjeevi’s attorneys that this other student “was tormenting [Sanjeevi] daily.”
During an email conversation between professors excerpted in the lawsuit—about the tension between Sanjeevi and one of her alleged bullies—one wrote: “This is getting messy and ugly.”
“I’m going to leave my lab because I can’t take it anymore,” Sanjeevi told a friend, according to the lawsuit. “She knew that I’ve been struggling with the fear of getting deported since the election. She knew that I have no power here as a foreign student. And she did this to me on top of all of that. I don’t understand how a person can be so cruel.”
In an essay assignment, Sanjeevi wrote that “[e]ncountering racism even in graduate school in psychology reinforced a powerful lesson that I learned my entire life: that I can put a nice suit on, but I can never take my skin off.”
By December, Sanjeevi had a meeting with the head of the department to report that she felt bullied and was “afraid” of at least one member of her cohort. But the department head labeled the issue as “a conflict between students” and declined to investigate the multiple reports of bullying and racism by specific students, even after Sanjeevi’s death, according to the lawsuit.
Eventually, other students began describing Sanjeevi as “despondent,” “withdrawn,” and “defeated and tired,” the complaint states.
Over those eight months, Sanjeevi reported the alleged bullying to at least five faculty members, in addition to a member of the school’s counseling center, a representative of the student conduct office, and another individual at the affirmative action department, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Just days before she killed herself, Sanjeevi told a friend that she was overwhelmed by the department’s apparent apathy, the complaint states.
“I just don’t understand why I matter so little to them,” she said. “I haven’t been feeling like living and this just confirms that I don’t want this life anymore.”
On April 22, 2017, she died of acute carbon monoxide poisoning. Her body was found two days later.
“When something like this happens, people ask why,” Sanjeevi wrote in a note before her death. “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. “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.”
Amanda DeRito, a spokeswoman for the university, told The Daily Beast on Monday that Sanjeevi’s suicide was “a tragic event that had a huge impact on the psychology department and on our entire university” and said the university “strongly” disputes the allegations in the complaint.
“We believe Utah State took all appropriate action to address interpersonal issues between students in the department,” DeRito said, declining to comment further on the details of the case, citing the pending litigation.
The complaint seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages for Sanjeevi’s family in Malaysia.
“Please be kinder in the future,” Sanjeevi wrote in her suicide note. “Please send my ashes to my parents.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.