US varsity sued over Malaysian PhD student's suicide

Ms Jerusha Sanjeevi had enrolled as a doctoral student in Utah State University just eight months before her suicide. She died on April 22, 2017, of acute carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ms Jerusha Sanjeevi had enrolled as a doctoral student in Utah State University just eight months before her suicide. She died on April 22, 2017, of acute carbon monoxide poisoning.PHOTO: JERUSHA SHI YUAN SANJEEVI/FACEBOOK

Family accuses Utah State University of alleged inaction despite reports of bullying

PETALING JAYA • She was a bright young Malaysian student pursuing a doctorate in clinical and counselling psychology because she wanted to help children the world over.

But she also had to persevere through months of what she described as racial bullying and insults at her university.

Ms Jerusha Sanjeevi, a child-rape survivor of Chinese and Indian descent, took her own life in 2017 at the age of 24. Now her family is suing Utah State University (USU) for alleged inaction over Ms Sanjeevi's multiple reports of relentless racist bullying, US media reports said.

The Herald Journal said Ms Sanjeevi's family, who still lives in Malaysia, is seeking damages from the university. No amount was disclosed.

Ms Sanjeevi had a master's degree in clinical psychology and had enrolled as a doctoral student in USU's combined clinical and counselling psychology programme just eight months before her suicide. She died on April 22, 2017, of acute carbon monoxide poisoning.

The lawsuit names as defendants USU and three psychology faculty members. They include department head Gretchen Peacock, the department's Professor Melissa Tehee, Emeritus Professor Carolyn Barcus, and two students who were the alleged bullies, The Herald Journal reported.

It claims that the department "knowingly allowed one of its students to be verbally abused, intimidated and subjected to cultural and racist discrimination by favoured students over the course of eight months". The suit also alleges that the university, where 83 per cent of its students are white, had a pattern of favouritism as well as racism against international students.

The bullying began just weeks after Ms Sanjeevi's first semester started, and grew more intense throughout her time there. "Every day I dread going to class now because I sit three feet from my white bully," the report said, citing a note she wrote to a close friend.

Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that two students in her cohort singled her out. They would not only mock her whenever she spoke in class, but would also say she smelled like Indian food and talked about how dark skin was a sign of inferiority.

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Ms Sanjeevi first reported her concerns in September 2016 to Prof Tehee, who supervised a lab that both Ms Sanjeevi and one of the alleged bully was in. She later told her boyfriend that the professor and the alleged bully did not take her concerns seriously. The bullying even escalated into rumours about her academic character.

The university has called her suicide "a tragic event " but denied the allegations. In a statement to US media, USU spokesman Amanda DeRito said that while it could not comment on the specifics of this case, it strongly disputed "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.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2019, with the headline 'US varsity sued over Malaysian PhD student's suicide'. Print Edition | Subscribe