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Photos

No Cell Phones at School? Better See the Cell Phone Storage Man

A small but thriving industry has cropped up around New York City high schools that forbid students from having phones on campus.

Jhonn de La Puente, 42, runs a cell phone storage van in his native Crown Heights. (Aaron Reiss)

For teenagers in New York City, like most places in America, cell phones have become a regular part of daily life. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of U.S. kids aged 12 to 17 now have a cell phone, and almost half (47 percent) of those own smartphones. Over the last couple decades, many school districts across the country have responded to this sea change by banning phones from classrooms, or from campus entirely.

In New York, the Department of Education issued a ban in 2005 that forbids high school students from bringing cell phones into public schools. Part of a battery of Bloombergian initiatives that struck at what many considered parental issues (the failed large-soda ban, the trans fat ban), the cell phone ban was couched in concerns for cheating, inappropriate or lewd texting, and preventing general distraction among New York's students.

Some parents and students have since fought to overturn the ban, arguing that cell phones are now a basic part of life, and ought to be allowed in schools if used responsibly. For nearly 10 years, the city has refused to yield.

Still, it's clear that plenty of students bring their phones to school despite the ban. Many schools turn a blind eye—if they don't see it or hear it, then there's no problem.

But at schools with metal detectors and other security screening measures, students do not have that luxury: they are simply unable to bring phones to school. And so it's in the neighborhoods surrounding schools with metal detectors that a fascinating, unforeseen byproduct of the cell phone ban has emerged: a previously nonexistent cell phone storage industry.

In the immediate vicinity of a number of New York high schools, you'll find shops, cafes, bodegas, even hair salons that offer daily cell phone storage to students, typically for a dollar a day.

I spent the last few months in a small, park-side section of Crown Heights, where five closely clustered public schools, with a collective student body of over 3,400 students, have helped to create a thriving ecosystem of cell phone storage operations. With Mayor Bill de Blasio reportedly gearing up to repeal the school cell phone ban, things aren't necessarily looking up for this nascent industry. But in the meantime, a complex network of businesses, arrangements, relationships and work-arounds have developed in this community over the course of the past decade.

My first peek into New York's cell phone storage industry came when I passed this white van parked outside of the Prospect Heights High School complex, which houses four distinct public high schools. Students were lining up outside the van and I watched as cell phones, mp3 players, and tablets disappeared into a mail-slot, and then as disembodied hands reached out of the van with colored tickets. (Aaron Reiss)
Safe ’n’ Secure Cellutions LLC is a company founded by entrepreneur Jhonn de La Puente, 42, a Crown Heights resident who runs this cell phone storage van as his sole business. Safe 'n' Secure is one of many companies that have emerged to fill the need for cell phone storage near New York City public schools. Several students at Puente’s Van described to me their lengthy commutes to school, often taking upwards of forty minutes. Puente’s van means their phone can be on hand as soon as they get out of class.  (Aaron Reiss)
A modified Ford E250, Puente's van is outfitted with security cameras, storage racks and a cash lock box. He designed it and customized it for the job, one that he thought he was inventing back in 2011. “I even did research on the average height of high school students to get a median height to put this window at," says Puente. "It was really important to me that it was the right level so they could see my face and so that I could interact with the customers.” (Aaron Reiss)
Here, Jonathan Arnau, 27, volunteers to help work the window. He sits on the other side of the mail-slot, ready to retrieve or store phones, accept payment, and dish out change. Arnau is a guitarist at his church, and sometimes plays music for students outside the van. (Aaron Reiss)
Along the van's walls, dozens of plastic, behind-the-door-style shoe organizers create a makeshift hanging library of smartphones, mP3 players and flip phones. Puente spent about $200 dollars on the organizers, a fraction of the over $4000 dollars he invested in the van and customizations. (Aaron Reiss)
Puente creates a daily log of students' phones, along with a 4-digit pin to make sure he doesn't ever put a phone into the wrong hands. Each student is also given a unique ticket and customer ID. “You can’t test my system,” says Puente. (Aaron Reiss)
Puente asks all new customers to sign waivers that state they will abide by the company’s rules and regulations. “This way, they know our rules and we also have any info we need (school name, school year, phone number, emergency number, email, etc.) in case we need to get in touch with the kids.” Ultimately, Puente says, he is responsible for any lost or stolen phone. “If a phone is missing, that means we gave it away—I would buy them a new phone. But, that has never, ever happened.” (Aaron Reiss)
Cell phone storage remains new territory for the city, and it comes replete with ambiguities that entrepreneurs like Puente must navigate. While he has a general business license and has never had any issues with city authorities, a representative from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs says that a general vendors license would be needed for cell phone storage businesses, but that general vendors cannot operate out of parked vehicles. This interpretation would make cell phone storage vans vulnerable to $100 fines from the NYPD.

Puente’s care and meticulous documentation are important, as this is his sole source of income. He has mixed emotions about the potential for an end to the cell phone ban. “Honestly, I see both sides of the issue," he says. "As a parent, I am for the mayor lifting the ban. I have to be in contact with my kids after school, to find out where they are. But as a business owner, this would be really hard.” (Aaron Reiss)
Around the corner, Franklin Deli has a steady stream of students coming in and out. These teens are looking for more than chips and sodas—they are also retrieving their phones. Franklin Deli is one of many local businesses that have added cell phone storage to their pre-existing services. (Aaron Reiss)
Ali Mozeb, 39, started holding phones behind the counter at Franklin Deli after seeing kids drop them off at neighboring shops. "It was a slow month and I started asking around. I thought, 'Why don't I do like them?'" His system for organizing the phones is effective, albeit less involved than Puente's—each phone gets a numbered ticket, and a corresponding numbered ticket is given to the student. (Aaron Reiss)
If a student loses their ticket, Mozeb will hand over the phone if they can describe it accurately, but only after he takes a picture of their school ID with his own phone. "That way, if the real owner comes looking for their phone, I can just hand over that photo to the school and the authorities." In this largely unregulated and relatively young industry, questions of responsibility, insurance and phone replacement are all up for debate. (Aaron Reiss)
Nearby, President Grocery & Deli also stores students’ phones.  José Infate, who runs the shop, has also devised a storage loyalty program. At President, students who store there every school day only have to pay $3 a week.

High demand has driven many cell phone storage operations to offer such loyalty programs.  Next door to President, a hair salon, Platinum Cuts, offers free storage on Fridays for regular customers. (Aaron Reiss)
With students paying $3 to $5 a week, the hundreds of phones stored at the deli can add up to a meaningful source of revenue for small businesses like Infate's.

Infate also sees storing phones as a way to boost dwindling sales. "People around here go to Costco, or to the big stores to buy their groceries. This way students might buy a sandwich when they come in for their phone." (Aaron Reiss)
Like the other storage operations in and around Crown Heights, Infate has designed a system for identifying which phone belongs to whom. He uses handwritten labels that correspond to a student's ID to make sure they are getting the right phone. (Aaron Reiss)
Here, a student shows his ID to prove he is indeed the owner of his phone. Shopkeepers are generally anxious about potentially losing phones, which could result in a huge loss of patronage and possibly get them in serious trouble. Businesses like Infate’s are navigating a legal grey area, says a representative from the Department of Consumer Affairs, which has yet to establish formal rules for this industry, such as whether the practice should require additional licensing or not. This ambivalence on the part of the city hasn’t appeared to slow the industry’s growth. (Aaron Reiss)
Sal's Restaurant, a few blocks up Franklin Avenue, has a different model—they store phones for free for regular customers. After a quick breakfast, students hand their phones over the counter and head to school. (Aaron Reiss)
Sal Abdul, 59, who owns Sal’s Restaurant, sees the cell phone ban as a huge burden on the community. "I have three kids. How much money would that have been every week?" While the cell phone ban has meant an uptick in revenue for local businesses, Abdul feels that it has been at the cost of the local students and families.  

This burden may not be applied equally across New York’s neighborhoods. A recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that metal detectors are typically found in schools with disproportionately high numbers of low-income students as well as black and Latino students. (Aaron Reiss)
Mornings inside Sal's Restaurant are a busy and crowded affair. "He's been here forever and this place is a neighborhood gem," says Shaniqua Emery, 26, a longtime customer. "It gets really crowded, but he knows the people that come in. Sometimes you don't even have to tell him your order, he just remembers."

"Here, it's not about money," says Abdul. If it was, we would have gone out of business a long time ago. We live in this neighborhood ... and we have for 30 years. We help each other." (Aaron Reiss)

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