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‘Smoking’ laptop causes school evacuation. Now NC district is removing 20,000 machines

A school district in North Carolina said it’s taking 20,000 Chromebooks out of circulation after one overheated in a classroom Wednesday and began to smoke, prompting the entire elementary school to evacuate.
A school district in North Carolina said it’s taking 20,000 Chromebooks out of circulation after one overheated in a classroom Wednesday and began to smoke, prompting the entire elementary school to evacuate.

A third grader reportedly yelled “fire, fire!” Wednesday as an elementary school in North Carolina was evacuated.

The source? An overheated laptop, district officials said.

Roughly 600 students at Lewisville Elementary School were evacuated when a 2015 Chromebook began to smoke in a classroom full of 8- and 9-year-olds, Kevin Sherrill, chief technology officer for Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, said during a press conference.

Though no one was injured, the district is recalling all 20,000 Chromebooks from that model year.

At $210 a piece — according to Sherrill — that’s roughly $4.2 million worth of machinery.

Third graders at the school were getting online reading instruction around 9:45 a.m. Wednesday when a student reported the Chromebook was getting hot, district spokesperson Brent Campbell said.

The laptop started to smoke, he said, and the classroom was immediately evacuated. A staff member then pulled the fire alarm and the entire building was also evacuated.

Someone also sprayed the laptop with a fire extinguisher.

Officials showed the blackened and charred Chromebook with fire extinguisher residue on it during the press conference.

Fire Chief Darin Needham said the fire department responded within three minutes of receiving the call. But he said there were no flames, and the incident will be classified as an electrical hazard.

The children were relatively calm during the evacuation, according to Principal Angie Choplin, in part because the school had practiced a fire drill earlier in the week.

One student from the classroom where the laptop was in use yelled “fire,” she said, but no one was panicked.

“When the alarm sounds, we know that it wasn’t planned,” Choplin said during the press conference. “We just go into action to make sure we can get our children out of the building.”

Officials said they didn’t see any physical damage on the laptop — apart from the burn.

“It’s obviously fairly damaged now,” Sherrill said, adding the cause was likely battery-related.

Students in the district don’t take the Chromebooks home with them, he said, though there’s a 1:1 or 2:1 student-laptop ratio.

Sherrill said there’s about 47,000 Chromebooks in the district, and each laptop is in circulation for five years.

This particular model was reportedly due to be replaced next summer.

He said about 8,000 replacements are scheduled to go into service this month and 8,000-10,000 more will be purchased in July.

Officials also plan to look at newer Chromebook models in the district to verify no other issues exist.

“(We’ve) never experienced this in all the years that we’ve had mobile devices in this district,” Sherrill said.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.
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