Aaron Reiss is a multimedia journalist based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and This American Life.
A small but thriving industry has cropped up around New York City high schools that forbid students from having phones on campus.
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.