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Young girl who had the cops called on her for studying lanternflies wins a major award

“We were thrilled that she was doing that.”

bobbi wilson, lanternflies, gordon lawshe

Body cam footage of the police approaching 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson and her mother.

On October 22, 9-year-old Bobbi Wilson was excited to go out into her Caldwell, New Jersey, neighborhood to see if a mixture she put together would be effective at killing spotted lanternflies. She had learned about the dangers that the lanternflies pose to the local tree population during the summer and created an insecticide that she learned about on TikTok.

Spotted lanternflies are an invasive species dangerous to trees because they feed on their sap.

“That’s her thing,” Wilson’s mother, Monique Joseph, told CNN. “She’s going to kill the lanternflies, especially if they’re on a tree. That’s what she’s going to do.”

While Wilson was peacefully working on her sustainability experiment, her neighbor, Gordon Lawshe, called the police on her. “There’s a little Black woman walking, spraying stuff on the sidewalks and trees on Elizabeth and Florence. I don’t know what the hell she’s doing. Scares me, though,” he said, according to CNN.

Lawshe told the dispatcher she was a “real tiny woman” and wearing a “hood.”


When the police arrived, they were calm and did their best not to upset the young girl. They assured Wilson and Joseph that they had done nothing wrong. But the mother couldn’t believe that the police were called on them by a neighbor they knew.

“Mr. Lawshe told Mrs. Joseph that had he known that it was her daughter that he had seen, he certainly would not have called the police. Mrs. Joseph did not accept Mr. Lawshe’s apology," Lawshe’s attorney, Gregory Mascera, told CNN.


Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, says that the incident may have been an instance of “adultification bias” where young Black girls are treated like they are much older than white girls of the same age.

“It’s a very pervasive form of bias that does not know boundaries, in terms of which fields it occurs in. In emergency rooms, we’re seeing it affect the treatment and diagnosis of Black girls. In schools, we’re seeing it come up in the form of harsher and more frequent discipline against Black girls,” Epstein said in an interview with CNN.

The fact that a 9-year-old girl had the police called on her for any act is a depressing sign of the times in America. But thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. In the aftermath of the incident, a community of people stood up for Wilson and praised her for her dedication to sustainability.

A group of Black female scientists at Yale hosted Wilson and her family in November. She toured various laboratories and was invited to submit lanternfly specimens to the university's entomology department.

The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions honored Wilson with its Sustainability Award after it learned about her work with spotted lanternflies.

“We were thrilled that she was doing that,” Ann Marchioni of the ANJEC told the Daily Beast.

Wilson was given the award on Tuesday, December 6, and science communicator Jason Bittel was on hand to talk about spotted lanternflies and how he got into science writing.

“When I saw what happened with Bobbi, my heart immediately just sank," Bittel said, according to New Jersey Hills, "because what I saw in her I was doing as a young boy. We were celebrated, if anything, no one called the police on us or chided us in any way."

Bittel said that Wilson’s dreams could have been crushed the day the police were called on her. But the community stepped up to preserve her passion for science. To promote her interest in science, Bittel presented Wilson with a tub full of interactive materials and gave books to her mother so her daughter could learn more.

"When this incident originally happened, I had one goal. It was to change the trajectory of that day for Bobbi," Joseph said. "I can't say I've done it all myself. It wasn't just me, it was the community. … It was friends near and far that understood what happened."


This article originally appeared on 12.13.22

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