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Mental health evaluation ordered

News-Topic - 5/3/2018

May 02--A man accused of wearing a gun to two local elementary schools is now being held without bond and will receive a mental health evaluation.

Blaine Francis Pennington Jr., 50, of Post Place in Cajah's Mountain could not explain to investigators Tuesday why he was at Happy Valley School and Collettsville School, and was charged with two counts felony possession of a gun on educational property.

He had been held on $25,000 secured bond, but Judge Wes Barkley of Caldwell District Court revoked the bond Wednesday and ordered Pennington's weapon seized until the results of a mental health evaluation be reviewed, the district attorney's office said in a press release.

News of Pennington being on the school campuses frightened many students, parents and faculty.

Cherish Lail, the mother of a fifth-grader at Collettsville School, was glad to learn of Barkley's orders. She had worried that Pennington could get out of jail soon, "and who knows what could happen."

Lail said her daughter called her crying Tuesday afternoon. Though cellphone reception in Collettsville is poor, Lail could understood enough to be worried.

"She said they put them on soft lockdown, then changed it to hard lockdown so she knew it was real not just a drill. That terrified her," Lail said. "I was torn between running right up to the school and knowing that parents pulling up would only make the situation more chaotic."

Libby Brown, community services director for Caldwell County Schools, said Pennington first showed up about 11:30 a.m. in the lobby of Happy Valley School's gymnasium, where Teresa Brakefield, an instructional assistant, and Coach Tracy Proffitt asked why he was there. He told them he was there to see people, Brown said, "but he could never explain who they were."

He showed them his driver's license and left.

Happy Valley School went into "soft lockdown." Essentially, everyone was kept inside the school behind locked doors, Brown said.

About a half hour later at Collettsville School, school counselor Will Treen saw Pennington walking on a sidewalk near the school with a small dog, Brown said.

"He was unknown to him and he could not identify him, and as he approached him, he noticed that he did not have visitor badge on, so there was an immediate indication that he had not been to the front office," Brown said.

Treen asked Pennington what he was doing on campus. As they were talking, Pennington abruptly turned away, walked back to his pickup and drove off, Brown said.

Collettsville School went into full lockdown, meaning that all doors were locked, lights were turned off, and people must stay away from windows.

"You are quiet. There's no movement in the school whatsoever," Brown said.

Pennington's mother, Mary Pennington of Cajah's Mountain, said Wednesday that she is worried about her son's mental health, and she's not sure why he visited the schools.

"I don't have no idea what was on his mind when he went there," she said. "He wouldn't hurt a child. ... I'm terribly worried about him, as much for his mental health as for his physical health."

Karen Clarke of Collettsville said that the incident highlights prior concerns people have had with poor cellphone reception in Collettsville. Teachers and students at Collettsville School must rely on landlines within the school to communicate, and people who have other emergencies in the Collettsville area often must walk to the nearest landline.

"I have needed to call 911 several times, and I had no service," she said. Five years ago, when her son died in a car accident, "we had to leave the scene to call 911."

The Caldwell County Planning Board has discussed raising the 110-foot height limit on cellphone towers, which would let signals get over mountains more easily and expand service to a wider region.

Planning Board Chairman Chris Barlowe said in a meeting March 13 that the poor reception is especially a problem in emergencies.

"It's a hindrance to our citizens, but also our emergency services," Barlowe said at the time.

The board may begin considering the proposal at its next meeting, which is scheduled for May 8.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

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(c)2018 the News-Topic (Lenoir, N.C.)

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