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USU pays $140,000 to family of student who died by suicide after alleged racist bullying

Utah State University has agreed to pay out a $140,000 legal settlement to a student’s parents, who allege their daughter reported multiple times that she was being bullied by classmates over the color of her skin and got little response before she died by suicide.

The tragic case of 24-year-old Jerusha Sanjeevi drew statewide attention when the lawsuit was filed in August 2019, spurring questions about a university’s duty and what support it offers particularly to international students. It has now ended quietly, with all parties signing onto the terms last week.

“It’s trite, but no amount of money, small or large, is a substitute for a daughter,” said attorney Richard Kaplan, who represented the family. “But I hope, really hope that it will help the parents move forward.”

The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a copy of the settlement agreement through a public records request.

The lawsuit had originally been filed by Sanjeevi’s boyfriend, Matthew Bick, on behalf of her parents, who still live in Malaysia where Sanjeevi was born and raised. The money from the settlement will go to her mom and dad, Liew Sau Keuen and Michael Maniyarasu Sanjeevi.

“The family understood that suicide cases are extremely difficult and appreciated the university’s willingness to consider any role it played in the loss of their daughter,” Kaplan said Monday about the agreement.

When asked for comment, USU’s spokesperson referred back to a statement the university released in 2019, saying that Sanjeevi’s death “tremendously affected her fellow students, as well as staff and faculty in the department.”

The school then wrote: “It is inappropriate to wage litigation through media, and as with all student matters and pending litigation, Utah State University is limited in what it can say. The facts should, and will ultimately guide, the outcome of this matter, and it is grossly inaccurate to say that USU did nothing.”

Under the settlement, the lawsuit will be dropped.

USU has agreed that the treatment Sanjeevi faced “may have caused injuries or damages or given rise to claims for damages,” according to the signed document, but it admits no wrongdoing or liability.

The case is one of several high-profile lawsuits against Utah State in the past few years. That includes multiple cases that question how the university has responded to sexual assault.

Most recently, the school came under fire for allegedly mishandling a student’s report of rape. When that case was a filed, a controversial recording of the school’s police chief became public. In it, Earl Morris told the school’s football team to beware of having sex with Latter-day Saint women because they may later claim it wasn’t consensual. That, the chief said, is “easier” than admitting to breaking the faith’s rules against premarital sex.

A separate recording also captured football coach Blake Anderson saying that it has never been more “glamorized to be a victim” of sex assault. The police chief resigned. The football coach apologized.

The settlement at USU also follows several pricey payouts in other Utah education lawsuits. The parents of slain track star Lauren McCluskey received $13.5 million in a settlement over how her case was mishandled at the University of Utah. And a student in Davis School District got $62,500 after a racist incident where he was shut in the doors of a moving bus.

Since those are public institutions of the state, the settlement money comes from Utah’s risk fund and insurance providers, as will happen with the funds going to Sanjeevi’s parents.

Sanjeevi’s experience

In fall 2016, Sanjeevi had enrolled as a doctoral student in the psychology department at USU. Almost immediately, two students in her cohort singled her out, the lawsuit claimed.

They made fun of Sanjeevi for having a “weird Asian name” and called her “stupid,” it said. 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.

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 Sanjeevi while instructing classes — saying she smelled like Indian food, talking about how dark skin was “a sign of inferiority” and spreading rumors that Sanjeevi was mentally unstable because she was worried about being deported, it said.

Sanjeevi reported her concerns first to a co-worker in September 2016 and then to the professor directly.

The professor, though, had a close relationship with the other student, according to the lawsuit, which pointed to several Facebook posts and pictures of the two together. The professor claims “dismissed [the reports] as a misunderstanding” and continued to show preferential treatment to the other student, giving her all of the research project assignments and none to Sanjeevi, it said.

The lawsuit asserted that a pattern of favoritism and northern racism has played out for years within the psychology program at the Utah school. International students, in particular, have faced a hostile environment there while faculty members knowingly allowed abuse to continue, the filing.

It said the school didn’t offer support to those students and had an obligation to help Sanjeevi, especially as she sought help from several offices across the university; USU’s responsibility was to take action.

But USU said faculty was monitoring the situation and trained students on equity.

Sanjeevi told her boyfriend what was happening and that she was considering leaving the school. Later in September, she met with two other professors, who convinced her to stay. But the lawsuit said little action was taken to support her.

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.

She met with an employee at the equal opportunity office multiple times to file a report of harassment. She told them, according to the lawsuit, that she was depressed and wished she could just focus on the school without the distractions.

The student who she said was harassing her found out about the complaint and the targeted attacks, the lawsuit said.

By the end of the semester, the department faculty suggested possibly moving Sanjeevi to another research lab or possibly dismissing both her and the other student from the program. In their conversations, which the family’s attorney received through public records requests, the professors suggested both women were to blame.

They didn’t step in, though, and the issues persisted. Sanjeevi then died by suicide in April 2017.

Experts caution against drawing a direct link between any one action and suicide and say many factors typically contribute. But the family and its attorney believe the situation at the school contributed to her death, and they point to the school declining to investigate further after Sanjeevi died.

Kaplan, the attorney, said Monday that the settlement will likely not bring the closure they seek. But it will close the painful back-and-forth with the school, he said, and hopefully let the family grieve their daughter.

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

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