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Yale honors Black girl who was reported to police as she sprayed lanternflies

Bobbi Wilson, 9, of Caldwell, N.J., was honored by Yale University this month for her efforts to eradicate the invasive spotted lanternfly. (Courtesy: Andrew Hurley/Yale University)
7 min

When Bobbi Wilson learned about the spotted lanternfly, the 9-year-old hoped to curb the damage the invasive species causes to trees by spraying her New Jersey neighborhood with a homemade solution of water, dish soap and apple cider vinegar.

But not long after Bobbi, who is Black, started spraying last October, she was approached by police officers who began questioning her. The officers were responding to a report from her next-door neighbor, who called a non-emergency line to report a “little Black woman, walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees” and said the 9-year-old wearing a hood “scares me.”

While police soon realized there was nothing suspicious about Bobbi, the girl’s mother and critics slammed the incident as the latest example of racial profiling.

Months after police questioned Bobbi, Yale University honored the young scientist known as “Bobbi Wonder” for her efforts to eradicate spotted lanternflies in her hometown of Caldwell, N.J. The Yale School of Public Health recognized Bobbi this month and thanked her for donating her personal lanternfly collection to the university’s Peabody Museum.

“Yale doesn’t normally do anything like this … this is something unique to Bobbi,” Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor with the Yale School of Public Health who organized the Jan. 20 event, said in a news release. “We wanted to show her bravery and how inspiring she is, and we just want to make sure she continues to feel honored and loved by the Yale community.”

Monique Joseph, Bobbi’s mother, told Yale officials that her daughter was grateful for the event honoring her interest in science. Joseph said that she wasn’t sure whether she should make a big issue out of the incident but that she wanted to shine light on the situation when she realized that the neighbor’s call was intentional.

“You know, you hear about racism; you kind of experience it in your peripheral if you’re lucky in your life. It doesn’t come knocking on your door,” Joseph said in a news release. “That morning when it happened, my world stopped.”

Gregory Mascera, the lawyer for neighbor Gordon Lawshe, a former city councilman, did not respond to a request for comment early Tuesday.

Joseph told News12 New Jersey that Lawshe eventually apologized “under the guise of telling me he was reporting a lost little girl.” Mascera told the outlet in November that Lawshe and his family faced threats to them and their property.

“Mr. Lawshe and his family have been defamed and will continue to be defamed until the innuendo and direct accusations and attacks against Mr. Lawshe and his family cease,” Mascera said at the time.

The fourth-grader learned about the spotted lanternfly and its effect on the environment last summer on TikTok, she told the Progress, a local newspaper. The spotted lanternfly is an invasive, black-and-red plant hopper native to China that was first detected in the United States in Pennsylvania in 2014, the U.S. Agriculture Department says. The insect, which feeds on the plant sap of more than 70 kinds of plants and trees, has since colonized in at least 14 states, according to National Geographic. One of the insects was photographed on now-President Biden’s shoulder during a 2020 campaign stop, and the species even made a “guest appearance” on “Saturday Night Live.”

In New Jersey, the state has urged residents to do their part in eradicating the insect.

“If you see a Spotted Lanternfly, help us Stomp it Out!” reads a message from the state’s Department of Agriculture.

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On Oct. 22, Bobbi made her homemade solution in a jug and set out to trap the insects in a big plastic bottle. Joseph said Bobbi had spent between 30 to 45 minutes a day catching spotted lanternflies, finding many on the trees at a local cemetery. Bobbi explained to the local newspaper that after she sprays the insects, she steps on them to make sure both the insect and the sack of eggs it is carrying are destroyed.

“They suck the life out of the trees,” she said to the Progress of spotted lanternflies.

Lawshe told the police dispatcher that he wanted to report a “real tiny woman” who was wearing a hood. Bobbi is wearing a hooded jacket in the body-cam image.

“I don’t know what the hell she’s doing,” Lawshe told the police dispatcher when he called that day, according to News12. “Scares me though.”

As Bobbi was spraying the neighborhood, an officer approached and asked what she was doing, according to body-cam footage. After she told him she was spraying for spotted lanternflies, she showed him the jug with her homemade solution. When Joseph asked why the officer was there, he replied that their neighbor had called.

“Are you serious?” Joseph asked the officer, according to body-cam footage.

The officer quickly concluded that the girl was “obviously fine.” Then Bobbi walked up to her mother and asked if she was in trouble. Both Joseph and the officer assured her there was no problem.

“No, you’re not in trouble,” the officer replied.

The officer walked over to Lawshe’s residence and explained that Bobbi was trying to catch and kill spotted lanternflies.

“What a weirdo, huh?” Lawshe responded to the officer, according to body-cam footage.

At a council meeting on Nov. 1, Bobbi’s 13-year-old sister, Hayden, spoke about the incident in front of the community. Hayden lauded Bobbi for her efforts to eradicate the insect and denounced her neighbor for calling the police on a young Black girl.

“She was not only doing something amazing for our environment, she was doing something that made her feel like a hero,” the elder sister said, according to CNN. She added that what her neighbor did was “extremely offensive, traumatic, and scarring towards my family.” She added, “I can confidently assure you guys that she will never forget this.”

Since the story went viral, Bobbi has been honored for her efforts and passion for science. Earlier this month, Bobbi was honored by police and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), among others, at an event in Montclair, N.J., according to Then Opara invited Bobbi and her family to come to Yale to meet successful Black female scientists, in hope of countering the memories of that October day, university officials said.

Asked by CBS News how it makes her feel to know her spotted lanternflies would be in the Yale museum, Bobbi could not contain her excitement.

“Happy and proud,” she said.

Joseph thanked Yale for helping to “change the trajectory of that day.” The mother emphasized that the family would do everything in its power to make sure that Bobbi “lives up to her fullest potential.”

“I am aware this happened for us, not to us,” Joseph said in the news release. “The reason that Bobbi is here, and we are not grieving, is because someone above wanted us to be a part of changing racism in our town. … It is because we have Bobbi that we are able to stand here and do something about it, to speak up for ourselves.”