PROFILE: Carnell Buford: Double duty

Written by Alec Etheredge

Deputy Carnell Buford slips on his neon yellow vest as he steps out of his patrol car on a crisp fall morning with a backdrop of vibrant red and yellow trees. He then turns toward the stacked stone entrance to Mt Laurel Elementary School ahead of the rush of students about to show up for the 8 a.m. start to school.

“Good morning,” Buford says, eyeballing a strange man he has never seen before. “I’m Officer Buford,” he continues before taking his bright orange glove off to shake hands. “Let me get the kids in safely and I’ll meet you inside.”

Buford then turns his attention to the mass of cars growing between the entrance of the school and the parking lot as parents drop off students for the school day. Sandwiched between two lines of vehicles, he and a few of the teachers from the school direct traffic.

The officer makes it a point to smile and wave at each car that drives by, but he also bears an intent look of focus for anything suspicious. Six years into the job, he certainly knows what to watch for. As the cars come to a stop, he blows his whistle, and the mad dash to the front door commences.

As more and more cars pull into the school’s turnaround, excitement to see Buford builds. Some students wave enthusiastically from the backseat, while others immediately wrap their arms around him for a hug when they step out. He also shares a few hugs and laughs with the parents, who then thank him before driving off and leaving their trust in the school resource officer’s hands.

Buford continues to engage with the arriving students, and even walks a few down the stacked stone walkway leading up to the entrance of the castle-like school. As he engages in conversation, he hopes to start each person’s day off with a smile before leaving them with a high five.

“When you’re face-to-face with them, you get a feel for how the morning is going for them,” Buford says. “Sometimes you can tell they’re having a tough morning, so I have an opportunity to try and brighten their day before it really even gets started.”

A family atmosphere

Buford holds a chocolate covered cricket in his palm. In front of him, the entire school looks on as he lifts the unique sweet to his mouth, tosses his head back and eats it.

Screams of “ew” and laughter ensue as Buford holds up his end of the bargain for the students meeting their coin drive fundraiser goal. Reluctant at first, Buford could have pretended to eat it, but laughing through it all, he gained the confidence as the kids look up to him.

That’s just one of many examples of Buford’s determination to make the kids smile and the school a happier place. He’s been slimed and taken pies to the face at other times—never one to turn down the opportunity to help the students have fun on his watch.

“He’s a part of our family here,” says Mt Laurel Instructional Leader Sheila Alaniz. “This is his family. He interacts with all of the kids and loves them all. He wants them all to know that they can come to him and he tells them that.”

Everything Buford does is to show his love for each specific person under his watch. “My third child has dwarfism and they always do a day where the students wear green,” says parent Kristen Peterson, who has had four kids come through the school. “He always makes sure to have on the bracelet to represent that. It just shows how much he cares and that these are his kids too.”

But it’s also a two-way street. Anytime Buford needs the kids or the staff, they’re there to support him as well.

After his sister passed away a few years ago on her birthday—a moment that is still hard to talk about and brings emotions to his normally bright and cheery face—the school was there for him. “When I lost my sister, to see the support that came in from the parents and everybody in the school, I was just overwhelmed,” Buford says. “It got me through a tough time. To still be able to come here and them giving me hugs and letting me know everything is going to be alright, that created a lot of emotion, but it was special to my heart.”

Protecting God’s people

As he winds down the hallways he’s protected for several years, Buford heads to the same gym he reported to a year earlier to eat a chocolate covered cricket. This time, on October 1, 2018, Buford thinks he is on his way to take care of an issue.

Just back from a deployment to Kuwait with the United States Air Force, Buford opens the door to a gym full of kids yelling and screaming with excitement as smiles beamed across the entire room. “All of the emotions hit me at once,” Buford says. “I had no clue that was coming. It honestly can be overwhelming to process that when you’re getting so much love from so many people”

Buford, already happy to be back in a comfortable setting, was overcome with joy to see the faces of the kids and faculty he cared about so much.

But the eight previous months weren’t easy. With a look of pain reminiscing about his time serving, Buford digs deep before he speaks: “I don’t really show emotions, but when I’m overseas it’s tough.”

As he recalls the conversations he had with the staff when deployed and the letters he received from students, those emotions can’t help but overcome him.

Every day Buford is deployed, he’s around 300-400 strangers and there is the unknown that each day could be his last. “Your guard is up extremely high for seven to eight months,” he says. “It’s tense. I’ve been in the military for 13 years and the unknown is always the most stressful part. Any given day, your life can change.”

But Buford signed up for both the military and his post as a police officer because of his love for people and wanting to keep them safe.  “Life is at the top of the list. Nothing can replace life,” he says. “Here the kids and the faculty are the asset when I’m on the civilian law enforcement side. During my military time, the asset is every person beside you and the country and military we are fighting for.”

Seeing the horrors of the military and also spending hours on end inside pf a school, Buford knows that every kid can be going through a difficult time. Some “just need that one person that will listen to them,” he says.

He makes a point to make the students and parents feel comfortable so they’ll trust him, not just to confide in him or make his day with a hug, but in case that day does come where he has to jump into action to protect the school he loves.

“After all,” he says, “what better job to have on this earth than protecting God’s people?”