SALT LAKE CITY — Even after she and her friends in Utah State University's psychology program reported continuous bullying from a fellow classmate, the intimidation continued until 24-year-old Jerusha Sanjeevi took her own life, a lawsuit alleges.
"To be honest, I am defeated and at a loss as to what to do at this point to make her stop. I have heard that she has been spreading these rumors even to faculty. Because I do not have institutional power in comparison to her, my faculty have not believed me even though I have asked for help repeatedly," Sanjeevi said of one of her alleged bullies in a final email to a professor.
"I do not know what to do at this point except accept defeat. I just needed you to know the truth before I leave."
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Sanjeevi's family Thursday in U.S. District Court against the university, three staff members and two students seeks unspecified damages in connection to the Malaysian woman's death.
In a statement Friday to the Deseret News, a school spokeswoman said Sanjeevi's death was "a tragic event that had a huge impact on the psychology department and on our entire university."
"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," spokeswoman Amanda DeRito said in the statement.
The student primarily accused of bullying Sanjeevi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Seeking an "inclusive and diverse learning environment," Sanjeevi chose Utah State for her doctorate program because of professor Melissa Tehee's promises that the psychology program offered "multicultural and cultural competence," the lawsuit states.
Sanjeevi came from an "economically disadvantaged" family and had worked her way out of poverty, putting herself through school and graduating magna cum laude from Bemidji State University in Minnesota, according to the lawsuit.
USU's American Psychology Association-accredited program requires students in their first semester to take a class that includes instruction in "cultural competence," according to the lawsuit. The class was taught by Tehee and professor Carolyn Barcus, both members of Native American tribes and both named in the lawsuit.
The university prides itself on its Native American outreach and created an American Indian Support Project in 1986 to "address the shortage of Native American mental health professionals," the lawsuit states.
Sanjeevi was the only person accepted to Tehee's lab who was not a member of an American Indian tribe, according to the lawsuit. In 2016, Tehee accepted two students, Sanjeevi and a Native American student, into her lab. It was the professor's first year with her own lab, the lawsuit states.
The fall semester began and, with it, the harassment, according to the lawsuit.
The other student posted on social media a photo of herself with Tehee and wrote, "I am so incredibly thankful for this woman! My boss/my mentor/my role model/my friend/my rock. We have such an amazing and unique relationship that I wish every grad student could have with their professor," attorneys said.
Meanwhile, "the first week of school (the other student) 'confronted Sanjeevi and told her that she was second best and that (the other student) would get the best research and assignments,'" the lawsuit claims.
"Tehee gave all of her research projects to (the other student); not a single one went to Sanjeevi," according to attorneys.
The other student allegedly also told Sanjeevi that she'd only been accepted to the program because another student had declined the school's offer at the last minute.
"(The classmate) made derisive comments to Sanjeevi about Sanjeevi’s culture, said that 'Asians only want to please their parents,' made fun of Sanjeevi’s name and told Sanjeevi that 'Asian names are weird,' among other cultural jabs that Sanjeevi found to be hurtful," attorneys said.
A few months later, when President Donald Trump got elected, Sanjeevi became concerned that she and other international students would get deported. As a result, she made "curry and rice, packaged them in small containers, attached a note for each (classmate) and delivered these care packages" to cheer them up, the lawsuit states.
That allegedly led the classmate to plant a rumor that Sanjeevi "was bipolar based on Sanjeevi sharing her cultural 'food therapy,' because (Sanjeevi) was so upset after the election but then made everyone food and was so happy,'" attorneys wrote.
Another student, a daughter of the president of the Society of Indian Psychologists, allegedly joined in on the rumor-spreading.
Other students noticed the alleged bullying and took Sanjeevi's side, attorneys wrote.
"One student reports that (the first classmate) would 'send texts to (Sanjeevi) of Indian foods and stereotypical Indian memes and ask whether they were legitimate. This was done despite the fact that (Sanjeevi) affirmed numerous times that she was not from India, but from Malaysia, though she did have Indian heritage," attorneys wrote.
Another peer told attorneys that "(the classmate) started a narrative in the (program) 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."
Other students reported that the classmate would "put (Sanjeevi) down, stating that she was 'whiter' than (Sanjeevi) and therefore more deserving of research position, cohort status, etc," the lawsuit states.
Sanjeevi discussed the alleged bullying at least 10 times with different psychology staff members — who attorneys said didn't act on her concerns — until on January 20, 2017, when she went to the Student Conduct Office and filed a discrimination, harassment and hostile environment report.
During that meeting, Sanjeevi said the classmate was "exceptionally close to Dr. Tehee," that she felt "ostracized," "bullied, and alone, like her cohort and faculty didn’t like her." The bullying was "having academic consequences," she told the office.
After Sanjeevi made that report, members of the psychology staff discussed options including dismissing both the classmate accused of bullying and Sanjeevi.
"I think some behaviors on Sanjeevi’s part are bordering on lack of professionalism that could lead to dismissal from the program," wrote one professor, according to the lawsuit.
In April 2017, after attorneys said nothing had changed, Sanjeevi took her own life.
After, a psychology staff member asked her classmates not to make any public comments or statements about her death, in emails or on social media, the lawsuit states.
"This is a case about a university clinical and counseling psychology training program that knowingly allowed one of its students to be verbally abused, intimidated and subjected to cultural and racial discrimination by favored students over the course of eight months, until she was rendered so emotionally devastated and hopeless that she committed suicide," attorneys wrote.
"In fact, from what appears, the department never applied any of its purported knowledge, skill and experience or made any professional efforts whatsoever to address, much less resolve, Sanjeevi's conflicts with one and eventually two Native American students."
The lawsuit also claims the university "substantially complicated and delayed" investigations into Sanjeevi's death and withheld relevant documents from attorneys.
This isn't the first time the university has come under fire recently for its handling of discrimination reports.
In 2017, the Department of Justice began investigating how the university responded to reports of sexual assault after three students were charged or convicted in high-profile sexual assaults alleged to have occurred between 2013 and 2015.
Reports in 2018 of sexual assaults in the school's music department also eventually led the school to reorganize its Title IX office.
The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The national crisis hotline is 1-800-784-2433.