The national conversation about whether it’s appropriate to expel 3- and 4-year-olds came to the governor’s mansion Wednesday.

While Gov. John Hickenlooper didn’t attend, a group of state and national experts discussed the issue and state Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, promised she would help craft legislation for the 2017 session.

“I really want to look for some solutions here,” said Lontine, whose adult son struggled with learning disabilities and behavioral issues in school. “Stay tuned.”

Chalkbeat sat in on the discussion, as experts talked about the extent of the problem — and some of the solutions already gaining traction. Here are some highlights.

The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ starts in preschool.
Several speakers pointed out that the disproportionate share of black teen boys who wind up in the juvenile justice system maps almost exactly to the disproportionate share of black boys suspended and expelled from preschool.

Black students make up just 18 percent of the national preschool population but 42 percent of those suspended once, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. For students suspended multiple times, the disparity is even greater.

“I always say we cannot talk about suspensions without talking about race when nearly half of all preschool suspensions are African-American children,” said Metro State University professor Rosemarie Allen, who organized the event.

She said the disparities won’t shrink until educators learn to overcome implicit bias — the unconscious assumptions people make based on characteristics like race and gender.

Suspensions of the youngest students are often invisible.
In the K-12 school system, there are due process hearings when kids are formally removed from class for long periods. At the preschool level, parents may simply be asked to pick up their children early from preschool because of problem behavior, said Phil Strain, professor of educational psychology and early childhood special education at University of Colorado Denver.

“That’s an expulsion and suspension with a small ‘e’ and a small ‘s’ that has, I would argue, an equally devastating effect on the family,” he said.

Teachers’ mental health and well-being are important.
Speakers noted that suspensions and expulsions are about adult decision-making and all the factors that influence it — things like stress, mental health problems, unconscious bias, and inexperience. Research shows that teachers who screen positive for depression, for example, expel children at twice the rate of teachers who don’t.

“We have a population of teachers that are starving,” said Walter Gilliam, a Yale University professor who conducted pioneering research on early childhood expulsion rates. “They are starving for attention, validation, and supports, and that’s what we need to provide for them.”

There are effective ways to prevent suspensions and expulsions.
Some teacher trainings—including the Colorado-created Pyramid Plus Approach— have been proven to give teachers the skills to manage challenging behavior. Having early childhood mental health consultants coach teachers helps too — and Colorado just doubled the number of those state-funded consultants, from 17 to 34.

“I am thrilled to see the awareness of the problem, but let’s not forget we have solutions too,” said Barbara Smith, research professor at University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Evidence Based Practice in Early Learning.

Strong parent-teacher relationships help, too.
Gilliam pointed out that, if the first time a parent and teacher talk is after a child’s challenging behavior, that sets the stage for a difficult relationship.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids expelled from preschool programs and a lot of kids suspended, but I’ve never seen a case of a child suspended or expelled when the parent and teacher knew and liked each other,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the university where Phil Strain and Barbara Smith work. They work at University of Colorado Denver.