Schools where violence is considered a risk have metal detectors to spot weapons, but they also spot phones. They include the Washington Irving Educational Complex in the bustling Union Square area, a cluster of small high schools housed in a massive century-old building that used to be one big high school.
The trucks that collect the cellphones have their own safety issues — one was held up in the Bronx in June, and some 200 students lost their phones. That could be why one operator near Washington Irving refused to speak to a reporter recently.
A converted disability-access van that's parked a block away on school days is painted bright blue and labeled "Pure Loyalty Electronic Device Storage." The owner is Vernon Alcoser, 40, who operates trucks in three of the city's five boroughs.
Mr. Alcoser would not comment, even though the names of news outlets that have run stories about Pure Loyalty are affixed to his trucks. Pure Loyalty employees chatted but would not give their names as students from the Washington Irving complex lined up on a drizzly morning to surrender their phones.
"Next, next, have the phone off, have the money out," an employee yelled as the teens texted and listened to music until the last possible second. At the truck window, each student exchanged a phone and a dollar for a numbered yellow ticket.
"It's not that much of a hassle unless it's really crowded," said Gramercy Arts sophomore Chelsea Clouden.
"My whole four years I've been putting my phone in this truck, and it's been great," said Melquan Thompson, a senior at the High School for Language and Diplomacy. "Only a dollar. It's not bad."
The cellphone trucks appear to be unique to New York City.
"That is hilarious," said Debora Carrera, a high school principal in Philadelphia who had never heard of a phone storage truck. "Wow. It is very strange."