Psychology faculty accused of failing to help bullied student
The family of a Utah State University student who died by suicide in 2017 is seeking damages from the university through a lawsuit alleging that the psychology department didn’t do enough to address an alleged bullying situation in the semesters prior to the student’s death.
Jerusha Sanjeevi, a 24-year-old Malaysian woman studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at USU, died by suicide in April 2017. The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, alleges a pattern of bullying, the Ph.D. program’s failure to address the bullying and a failure to mediate intercultural conflict between Sanjeevi and her alleged bully when the program touted its ability to navigate exactly such conflicts.
“I’m hoping that USU will take a hard look in the mirror,” said Richard Kaplan, an attorney with Anderson & Karrenberg, the Salt Lake firm representing the plaintiff. “I’m hoping that it will do what’s necessary to make diversity work there. And to avoid these kind of multiple relationships. And I’m also hoping to help the family in Malaysia with their circumstances financially.”
In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, USU spokesman Amanda DeRito disputed the claims detailed in the lawsuit complaint in a prepared statement.
“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,” the response states. “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.”
USU’s statement encourages students facing mental health issues to seek assistance at the school’s Counseling and Psychology Services program or the USU Student Health Center.
The lawsuit names USU itself and three psychology faculty members as defendants: Gretchen Peacock, then the psychology department head; Melissa Tehee, a professor in the department who advised the lab both Sanjeevi and her alleged bully were in; and psychology emeritus professor Carolyn Barcus. The lawsuit also names as defendants two USU students individually alleged to have bullied Sanjeevi.
The bulk of the bullying came from one of Sanjeevi’s fellow psychology Ph.D. students, the lawsuit alleges. During the fall 2016 semester, Sanjeevi and the student were the only two students in professor Melissa Tehee’s lab. Tehee and the other student were personal friends and often went horseback riding together at a ranch owned by Barcus, the lawsuit alleges, and that relationship biased Tehee against Sanjeevi when the latter brought up the alleged bullying.
The Herald Journal has decided not to publish the name of the student accused of bullying at this time.
Alleged favoritism with Native American outreach
The lawsuit builds the argument that two of Sanjeevi’s bullies received preferential treatment due to their connections to the program’s Native American outreach.
“Some of the people the complaint alleges were compromised ethically because they have what psychologists call ‘dual relationships,’” Kaplan said. “They were in long-term, very close relationships where they were friends and got together almost every weekend for horseback riding and weren’t in a position to help her because they were essentially already in the role of advocate for the people she said were bullying her.”
Tehee and Barcus are Native American themselves and active in the Society of Indian Psychologists. Every student Tehee had ever accepted for her lab had been a member of a Native American tribe recruited through a SIP conference — except for Sanjeevi, the lawsuit states.
Tehee gave the main alleged bully the entirety of the funding available to help her lab members pay for tuition, the lawsuit states, despite Sanjeevi living on her teacher’s assistant stipend of $5,000 per semester and “small amounts of money that her parents were sometimes able to send her.”
The lawsuit alleges favoritism because at the time, Tehee was director of the American Indian Support Project for the psychology department.
“As the Director of AISP Tehee had responsibility for finding sufficient funding to pay tuition and living expenses for (the other student), her Native American recruit,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that the other student bullied Sanjeevi throughout her time at USU, starting out by telling Sanjeevi that she was “second best” in the lab and that the other student was going to get the best research assignments from Tehee.
Tehee gave all of her research projects to the other student, the complaint states, assigning zero to Sanjeevi.
The alleged bullying also included statements about Sanjeevi’s culture that she found hurtful, including that “Asians only want to please their parents” and that “Asian names are weird,” the complaint states.
Despite her previous strong academic record, the perceived favoritism and the alleged bullying had Sanjeevi considering leaving USU only weeks after beginning her first semester there.
Sanjeevi reported her bullying concerns to Tehee, who then met with both students. The lawsuit is sparse on details concerning this meeting, stating that the attorneys hope to learn more in discovery. Sanjeevi, however, told her boyfriend that she felt neither Tehee nor the other student took her concerns seriously.
Following the meeting, the bullying escalated into rumors about Sanjeevi’s academic character, according to the lawsuit.
A student told attorneys that the other student would text Sanjeevi pictures of Indian foods and memes, asking her whether 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.
Sanjeevi was of Indian and Chinese heritage, making her a minority even in her native Malaysia.
The other student would mock Sanjeevi when she spoke in class, the lawsuit states, and told Sanjeevi that she was “too sensitive.”
Students the attorneys spoke with allege that the other student “started a narrative in the (psychology Ph.D. 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.”
At one point Sanjeevi said her alleged bully is “Native American but ‘presents white,’” the lawsuit states.
The alleged bully’s idea of “racial hierarchy permeated the Program and tormented Jerusha until her death,” the lawsuit states.
The 2016 election
Sanjeevi reported distress over the rhetoric surrounding the 2016 presidential race, in which candidate Donald Trump took a hardline stance on immigration, promising mass deportation of undocumented residents and a temporary “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
After Trump was elected, Sanjeevi emailed psychology professor Melanie Domenech Rodriguez asking whether she’d be deported and how she could help other upset students.
“As a Malaysian, I believe in food therapy, so I am going to be dropping off food this week for anyone who needs a pick-me-up, so let me know if I can help anyone in particular,” Sanjeevi wrote to Domenech Rodriguez, according to an email attorneys obtained through a records request to USU.
After that, the lawsuit alleges, the bully spread a rumor that Sanjeevi was bipolar because she had been “so upset after the election but then made everyone food and was so happy.”
The bipolar rumor had the potential to damage Sanjeevi’s future as a therapist, the lawsuit states.
By spring semester, the other student “started calling Sanjeevi things like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ as they passed each other in the hallways,” the complaint states.
Sanjeevi struggled with mental health issues. At one point, she wrote that she’d lived with depression for more than half her life.
Sanjeevi was a rape survivor, and at least one incident in which Sanjeevi rushed out of a classroom during a discussion about rape provided faculty with serious warning signs that Sanjeevi might be at increased risk of suicide, the lawsuit states.
In February of 2017, Sanjeevi sought help at the Counseling and Psychology Services, and in a report obtained by Anderson & Kerrenberg, CAPS Director David Bush “apparently assumed that some of (the bully’s) rumors about Sanjeevi were true,” the lawsuit alleges.
Sanjeevi was upset by this report and wrote to Domenech Rodriguez, “I gathered enough courage to report a White-skinned bully, but it has led to nothing but re-traumatization from the school on every front. Him echoing the racism/victim blaming felt like the last beating before getting knocked out.”
Anderson & Karrenberg aren’t alleging that USU has any general duty to prevent suicide, Kaplan told The Herald Journal, but they failed in their responsibility to Sanjeevi.
“What we’re alleging is that this particular program 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.”
Throughout the alleged bullying, the lawsuit states, Sanjeevi was seeking help through faculty members and eventually through USU’s Student Conduct Office, which referred her to the Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity office.
The lawsuit contains email correspondence among faculty and USU officials discussing the matter. There were several meetings with Sanjeevi and with the other student.
Stacy Sturgeon, who was USU’s AA/EO director before an unexplained restructuring in 2018, conducted a “respectful workplace training” for the department, but Sanjeevi and other students who are quoted in the lawsuit deemed it “a little too general” and having little effect with the alleged bully. The training did not include bullying, students reported.
These interventions didn’t stop the bullying behavior, the complaint states, and in fact it got worse throughout the school year. Sanjeevi became despondent at what she perceived as a lack of adequate response.
“The problem is that she can just continue to deny that she started it,” Sanjeevi told a fellow student. “That’s why she uses this style of bullying. Because she knows she can get away with it. … I don’t know why the department isn’t believing me. I don’t know why they’re letting her continue to bully and bully another student’s sanity away. I just don’t understand why I matter so little to them.”
The “bullying was ongoing throughout the school year, included multiple victims, and was reported by several students to faculty, the department head, and even the student conduct office,” the complaint states. “However, these reports were repeatedly dismissed as a ‘conflict between students’ by Peacock and the Department.”
But even were that the case, the complaint argues, “addressing and overcoming such ‘conflicts between students’ before the students become psychologists is precisely what the program purports to do.”
Kaplan said even considering the intercultural misunderstandings there may have been between the bully as a Native American and Sanjeevi as an Malaysian, the program often touted its ability to resolve such conflicts.
“The irony there is that … this program is supposed to be about diversity and multicultural conflict and helping students in the training process get beyond that sort of thing,” Kaplan said. “And that’s what wasn’t done here. And that goes to the core of the program’s mission.”