NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — News 8 is taking a closer look at disconnected youth and the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a disturbing national trend where at-risk youth are funneled from schools to the criminal justice system, and it’s a crisis happening in Connecticut.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing,” said Chanda Robinson, a senior director at Hartford-based non-profit Our Piece of the Pie, also known as O-P-P. “If you think about urban school systems, often there aren’t a lot of resources poured into those schools.”

OPP’s mission is to empower disconnected youth, ages 14 to 24, with key skills to overcome barriers and succeed in education and employment.

“This population is sometimes a forgotten population,” Robinson said. “They come with trauma. They come with mental health. They come with challenges. And sometimes, the trauma that they are experiencing is normalized. They have to just come to school and focus on their work.”

OPP is funded by Dalio Education, an organization created by philanthropist Barbara Dalio. They collaborate with non-profits to help struggling youth achieve positive outcomes.

Dalio Education’s research shows, as of 2016, at least 40,000 youths are considered “disengaged and disconnected” from schools across Connecticut. That’s more than one out of every five high school students in the state.

“We think the number is now larger, so 40,000 was before the pandemic,” Dalio Education co-CEO Andrew Ferguson said.

He said that off-track youth is at a crisis level and often ignored.

“This is a largely invisible crisis in this state that is affecting nearly every single community,” Ferguson said.

That off-track population is fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, leaving young people with no jobs and a bleak future. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests. Students suspended or expelled are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the justice system the following year.

Emmanuel Nelson, 20, spent most of his teenage years in Hartford, losing his mom to cancer at 15.

“I did go through a lot of things that have caused me to grow up faster than I would like to,” he said. “My mother was strong. She loved to laugh.”

The loss of a parent led Nelson down a difficult road.

“I went to jail for minor discrepancies,” he said. “It got cleared up, but I ended up having to be homeless after that.”

Nelson told News 8 that he struggled to find food and shelter.

“I was 18 when I was homeless,” he said. “It’s hard. I didn’t have no family either, and I had to figure everything out on my own.”

Nelson eventually found OPP, a group he considers family, including his youth development specialist, Jessica Blake.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back to the community that raised me,” Blake said. “He’s a great kid. He had to overcome a lot.”

The team at OPP gave Nelson resources, clothing, food, emotional support, and opportunity.

“OPP definitely saved my life because, without it, I wouldn’t be here, for real,” Nelson said.

Nelson now attends community college and found his passion for farming. He’s working to build an urban garden in Hartford.

“Seeing him now, being able to attend a community college, to attend a program to get a certification – those types of things are wonderful,” Blake said.

Janaejah Kelly, 24, faced a similar struggle when she was homeless in Hartford at 16.

“It was tough for me,” she said. “I was homeless. I was couch-surfing and looking for a place to call home.”

Kelly said her family kicked her out of the house, and she had to fend for herself.

“If you don’t have support, school is harder. You don’t have nowhere to lay your head at night, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you don’t have clothes, things like that affect you a lot.”

During that uncertain time, Kelly said OPP changed her life by pairing her with mentor Chanel Wright.

“I’ll never forget giving Janaejah that bag of clothes and just helping her throughout every day – making sure she gets to school, making sure she has what she needs,” Wright said.

It’s a life-changing support system, reconnecting youth with bright futures.

“I have my own apartment now,” Kelly said. “I’m stable. I have a good job. I have my dream dog, a car. All those things I didn’t think I was going to get to, I got to, thanks to OPP.”

Click the links to learn more about Dalio Education and Our Piece of the Pie.

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If you missed part one on Reconnecting Our Youth, watch it here.