Rick Grisham Maintains Transportation Department’s National Legacy, Wins 2017 National Transportation Leadership Award

Before the sun rises, you may find Rick Grisham at the entrance to the Carroll Pitts Jr. Transportation Center welcoming bus drivers. You may see him in the afternoons driving behind a bus as students head home. At community events, you may catch him promoting school bus safety as he escorts the Transportation Department’s mascot, Hawkeye. He’s even been the man in the mascot suit a few times.

Rick Grisham, Cobb County School District executive director of transportation, gives a safety brief to parents during a kindergarten ride-along at McCall Primary School.

When Grisham took over the Cobb County School District’s Transportation Department a decade ago, he was stepping into the shoes of a legend in the transportation world. Former CCSD executive director of transportation, Carroll Pitts, drove Cobb to a national level of recognition and earned hall of fame status in the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT.)

As his successor, Grisham continues to expand the national legacy of the Cobb Transportation Department. In addition to being recently named to the NAPT Board of Directors, Grisham earned the 2017 Leadership Award from School Transportation News and was featured in the cover story in the November issue of School Transportation News Magazine.

“I’ve always been told you go in and pick up what’s left off and add value,” Grisham explained. “We came in with some of the programs that Carroll had kind of started, and we built on those.”

Grisham enhanced school bus safety through his focus on innovation and his introduction of the CCSD Safe Rider and Stop Arm Camera programs.

Since Grisham took command of Cobb’s fleet of buses, he has looked to new technology to keep students safe. For example, there are child check restart buttons at the back of buses to help prevent students from being left on the bus if they fall asleep. There are also safety sensors around the bus to alert if something goes under the bus. One of the biggest technology upgrades is the routing software.

“We have 87,000 bus stops. All of those are programmed into a computer software program,” Grisham explained. “We have the sex offender registry entered into our routing software. We update that every 15 to 30 days so we can take the children’s bus stops away from the sex offenders.”

Soon after he took over as the executive director of the Transportation Department, Grisham sought the advice of a focus group to determine the department’s biggest challenge, which they concluded to be discipline referrals for bus riders. To decrease discipline issues on the bus, Grisham launched the Safe Rider Program. 

This student management system for bus riders is designed to promote instant accountability for students, parents, and school staff. Substituting the words safe and unsafe for behave and misbehave, the program reminds students that riding the school bus is a privilege. Other components of the program include behavior contracts, classroom training, and conferences.

According to the data Grisham and his team have collected, the Safe Rider Program is a success.

“We found an average of a 55 percent reduction in middle school [bus discipline referrals],” revealed Grisham. “At some, we had over a 70 percent improvement. So, we can honestly say that The Safe Rider Program has reduced referrals by at least 50 percent.”

Students who lose their bus privileges go through a Safe Rider Program education course. Of the dozen or so students who Grisham’s team suspended from the buses last year, none are repeat offenders this year. For Grisham, that’s success.

Another part of the Safe Rider Program protects the District’s youngest riders, who sport yellow identification tags on their book bags.

A yellow tag will be issued to all bus-riders who are 8 years old or younger. The tag is to be attached to the child’s book bag and visible at all times in order to help the transportation staff clearly identify Cobb’s youngest students.

“This yellow tag tells my drivers [that the child is in] kindergarten through second grade,” Grisham explained. “If they have a yellow tag, they don’t get off the bus without a parent at a bus stop.”

Grisham implemented the yellow tag program to cut down on young students getting off at the wrong bus stops. For Grisham, it is a necessary precaution to keep Cobb students safe.

As a result of the success of the Safe Rider Program, Grisham has promoted the program to his colleagues in the school transportation industry. More than a dozen districts have followed Cobb’s model for a Safe Rider Program.

Grisham’s team recently expanded the safe rider program with the introduction of a new program, SOAR, which encourages students to ride the bus Safely, Orderly, And Respectfully.

The SOAR safety program includes the transportation team mascot, Hawkeye. Grisham wants students to equate Hawkeye with bus safety and to recognize the CCSD mascot when he visits schools or attends community events like the Veterans Day Parade on Marietta Square.

“I want [Hawkeye] to be like the Chick-fil-A cow,” Grisham declared proudly.

Members of the Cobb County School District Transportation Department participate in the 2017 Veterans Day Parade on Marietta Square.

Grisham took one of the biggest steps to increase the safety of Cobb students by adding stop arm cameras on CCSD school buses to catch motorists illegally passing when the stop arm is extended. The number of violations has dropped by more than 50 percent since the cameras were installed five years ago.

It’s not just the hefty fines that helped decrease the number of cars illegally passing stopped school buses.

“I think our strategy that worked best was that we had a big educational component to our consumers, our students, and our parents,” Grisham added. “The education piece to me is a big part of the [success.]”

As part of the Stop Arm program, the transportation team works with homeowners associations to educate homeowners about when they need to stop for school buses.

“Motorists knew we meant business, and the few people who got the tickets early [told] their neighbors, ‘we better stop,’” Grisham explained. “The great statistics that we have is only two percent of all the people who have gotten violations have been repeat violators. We can tell that the program is working.”

On the CCSD Transportation Department’s website, the public is able to access educational resources to learn how to keep Cobb students safe as they get on and off the bus.

“We have gone from over 1,900 violations a day back in 2012 to now, we are less than 900 per day in 2017,” Grisham said. “We have one of the most successful models in the country. Many have modeled after our Georgia law and the Cobb model.”

In addition to the education component of the CCSD Stop Arm Program, there’s another reason the program is successful, according to the executive director of transportation.

It’s what he advises other school districts across the country to do when they follow the Cobb model for adding stop arm cameras. Instead of trying to review video of the stop arm violators in house, he encourages other school districts to contract out that part of the program, and instead, concentrate district resources on other ways to improve safety.

Helping other districts is one reason Grisham earned the 2017 Leadership Award. He wants to help smaller school districts implement programs like Cobb’s student management and stop arm camera programs.

“Our student management is probably one of the biggest things I see helping smaller districts manage student behavior. That one thing can [turn] bus drivers away,” added Grisham.

For those districts who call Grisham for help—there are going to be a lot more now that he is on the NAPT board of directors—Grisham provides detailed plans on how they can take the bus control back and keep student management in check. In addition to helping other districts looking to launch their own stop arm camera programs, Grisham also fields calls from schools interested in switching from diesel engines to gasoline engines.

“We are one of the few districts in the country that have gasoline buses,” Grisham said. “People call us from all over the country to ask how the gasoline buses are working. “People are kind of getting away from diesel with all the emissions. We are finding our gasoline buses to be a notarized national phenomena.”

According to Grisham, the gasoline buses are more economical than diesel. Looking ahead, Grisham plans to add more than gasoline buses to the transportation fleet.

“[In the future,] we are hoping to look at alternative fuels to go greener. We feel like an alternative fuel is viable,” he said.

Grisham and his team are doing the research now to determine the best direction for the transportation fleet in the future. They are also looking at ways to increase bus safety education by partnering with the Cobb County Safety Village.

“They are going to be building an educational wing that is going to be taking on the [science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)] modules. We are hoping to have some bus transportations modules as part of that building,” added the new NAPT board member.

He wants a bus at the Safety Village to be interactive and hands-on.

“I envision the bus kind of like a Disney ride,” Grisham said smiling. “You get on the bus, and it kind of rumbles. The shades come down, and the video comes on the screen. You feel like you are riding the bus with the bus driver.”

As evident by the national accolades and districts across the country seeking to model their transportation programs after Cobb, the CCSD Transportation Department is building a legacy of success. But, who is the man in the driver’s seat for the department?

Rick Grisham, Cobb County School District executive director of transportation, poses with members of his transportation team in front of the Carroll Pitts Jr. Transportation Center.

He’s a leader who you won’t find behind his desk for more than a few minutes at a time. He prefers to interact with his team members and build relationships.

“My leadership style is collaborative. I think I’m a visionary leader. My job is to stir my staff up to justify and rationalize everything we do. To let parents know that we are doing everything we can to keep their kids safe,” Grisham explained.

His goal is to motivate his employees. He relies on his background as a professional tennis coach to do just that. He believes that if the bus drivers are happy, they will pass that on to the kids. Sometimes, he takes off his hat as director of the department to build more camaraderie with his team.

“My special needs supervisor challenged me to a driving competition,” Grisham recalled about recent bus rodeo event. “I’ve been talking about doing it all these years, and I finally did it. I was really proud.”

When looking for ways to encourage the more than 1,000 CCSD Transportation Department employees, Grisham still relies on the words of wisdom from his predecessor Carroll Pitts.

“The best advice I got from Carroll Pitts when I was on the interview was ‘Rick, if you just love on the people, you will be successful.’ I look at our bus drivers and monitors as unique people. I try to love on them when I can.”

Jeremiah Bradberry, who was recently crowned America’s Best Technician, works on one the buses in the Cobb County School District fleet.

He views the jobs of bus drivers and bus monitors as two of the hardest jobs in the school district, and he strives to recognize the work they do to keep students safe every day.

Jeremiah Bradberry, who was recently crowned America’s Best Technician, praised Grisham for the way he interacts with employees inside the fleet maintenance shop where Bradberry works as a technician.

“[Rick Grisham] is a stand up guy. He is always positive. When you see him walking around, he always has a can do attitude. I like that. A lot of people like that,” complimented Bradberry.

Grisham followed a unique route to his position of executive director of transportation. Bouncing between the tennis industry and education for the majority of his career, it was tennis that finally put him in the driver’s seat of a bus. He had to get his commercial driver’s license to drive his school’s tennis teams to matches.

In his free time, he still plays tennis, and he transfers that energy from the court into his drive to push the CCSD Transportation Department to be a national leader.

“I take that active competitiveness into my job everyday,” Grisham said. “I want to lead. I always thought you are leading, following, or staying out of the way. I want [Cobb County] to be a leader, especially when it comes to bus safety.”