Why nearly 8,000 of Louisiana's youngest students were tossed out of school last year is triggering arguments on why it is happening and how to tackle the problem.

In addition, the state's overall suspension rate — about 60,000 students — is top-heavy with black students, which is sparking still more questions.

"It is really, really striking," said Jennifer Coco, a New Orleans attorney who is chairing a new state panel to study the issue.

One side says lots of children entering school come from troubled backgrounds and that principals are well within their rights to issue out-of-school suspensions.

"I think the ultimate decision on how to keep your schools safe does lie on the principal's head," said Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals and a former principal herself.

Others say the state has to come up with new ways to keep troubled children in schools, including the thousands of disabled students who were suspended during the 2015-16 school year, the latest figures available.

Julie Comeaux, a New Iberia mother of a seventh-grader who has a rare disorder that causes "challenging behavior," has seen the problem up close.

"To suspend these kids for these behaviors is neglecting the disability, the presence of a disability," Comeaux said.

Statistics that were rolled out on Sept. 16 for the newly created Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline points up what experts call a growing, nationwide problem.

Even more surprising is the fact that 7,843 of the students given out-of-school suspensions range from prekindergarteners to third-graders.

"I had no idea the numbers were that high," said state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville and sponsor of the bill that set up the 24-member study group.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who in 2014 sponsored sweeping legislation aimed at curbing suspensions, agreed.

"It boggles my mind that we are actually putting children out of school before they even have an opportunity to know what school is all about," Smith said.

"It definitely is an issue in Louisiana," said Amy Zapata, director of the Bureau of Family Health in the Louisiana Department of Health.

A report done by the state Department of Education is blunt in describing the roughly 60,000 students suspended last school year. "Those disciplined were disproportionately low-income, minority and disabled," according to a PowerPoint presentation by the agency.

About two thirds of those suspended are black students — 41,103 compared with 16,831 white students.

Nearly 11,000 students tossed out during the previous school year had disabilities.

Allison B. Boothe, who directs a program at Tulane that provides mental health consultations to child care centers statewide, said part of the problems stems from too much emphasis on academics in the early grades and preschool.

"They are expected to sit and absorb information for very long periods of time, with little time for movement and free choice, which allows them time to learn and practice social emotional skills," Boothe said in an email.

She said that, while children should not fall behind in school, "the irony is that without the basic social emotional skills, children are not prepared to learn the academic work."

Coco, who works for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she has represented African-American students as young as 6 years old who were suspended for 60 days. "What I learned is that what is really going on here is young children that have some sort of behavior thing and people don't understand it," she said.

The state's youngest students were suspended for a variety of infractions, with willful disobedience, injurious conduct and fighting on the list.

State law spells out penalties for some of the offenses, and suspension is mandatory in some cases.

School districts are required to have master plans aimed at improving behavior, including mental health services.

Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent of education, said some districts give principals discretion on the punishment for fighting and other problems.

Susan Berry, a professor of clinical pediatrics at LSU, said tossing so many students is not the answer.

"Some parents can lose jobs because they had to stay home with an expelled child," Berry said. "That just repeats the cycle of failure."

Louisiana's suspension rate mirrors problems nationwide.

A July report by the American Academy of Pediatrics said young children are being bounced out of preschools at alarming rates.

In addition, black children are 3.6 times more likely to get preschool suspensions than white students, according to figures complied by Walter S. Gilliam, a child psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center.

Schum said any policy revisions need input from principals.

"As a former principal, I am going to use every resort I can before I go to suspension because I feel like the best opportunity to get an education is in my building, my school," she said.

Comeaux, a member of the study panel, said students with disabilities face some of the same hurdles as those from low-income households.

"They both walk in that door with a burden on them whether it is health needs or home life," she said.

"They walk into school with that burden," Comeaux said. "They cannot just drop it at the door and leave it there."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.