Utah State University has expanded its prepared response to a wrongful death suit alleging the school did too little to help a student who died by suicide after she reported that she was being bullied.
Upon media inquiries after the lawsuit had been filed, USU stated it is limited by what it can say publicly since the matter involves students and employees as well as pending litigation, but the university “strongly disputes the facts and allegations in the complaint.”
The lawsuit, filed by Salt Lake City firm Anderson & Karrenberg in Utah federal court last Thursday, alleges that the university did too little to address the situation of psychology Ph.D. student Jerusha Sanjeevi before she died by suicide in April 2017.
The complaint builds the case that Sanjeevi, originally from Malaysia, was bullied by a fellow student almost as soon as she arrived at USU for the 2016 fall semester. The complaint argues that the situation wasn’t resolved satisfactorily in part because the alleged bully was close friends with two members of the program’s faculty and benefited from their Native American outreach efforts.
News of the lawsuit, drawing on details from the 90-page complaint Anderson & Karrenberg sent outlets, was picked up by national and international media outlets.
Earlier this week, USU expanded on its official response, stating, “It is inappropriate to wage litigation through media” and reiterating that the 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,” the release states.
Richard Kaplan, an attorney with Anderson & Karrenberg, agreed.
“It would not be appropriate for us to get into an argument in the press with them or to go tit for tat, to litigate in the press,” Kaplan said. “They are correct that it is in litigation now, and the facts relating to the adequacy or inadequacy of their intervention will be established in court, and we welcome that.”
The lawsuit complaint itself includes details of some of the ways USU administrators and faculty in the clinical/counseling psychology program addressed the situation throughout the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters.
“As noted in the complaint: faculty members directly engaged with Ms. Sanjeevi and the other student in response to allegations of social exclusion and gossip, monitored the situation and proactively reached out to students to check on their well-being, and reassigned labs and mentors,” USU’s expanded release states. “The Office of Equity also provided training on respectful interactions in a professional environment to the Ms. Sanjeevi’s entire student cohort.”
Students quoted in the complaint believed the training from USU’s Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Office, recently renamed the Office of Equity, was too general and did not specifically address the issue of bullying.
The release also states that news of the lawsuit itself has had a negative impact on people at the university.
“Unfortunately, since the complaint was filed, several students and faculty at USU – themselves women of color – have been subjected to harassment,” USU’s release states. “USU condemns such treatment and will continue to support everyone in our community and treat each and every person with respect and dignity.”