School districts all across Texas, scrambling to tighten security before the new year starts, are assessing everything from metal detectors to better mental-health services. In Texas City, the road to safer schools starts with a former federal agent who made his name protecting the President of the United States.
Mike Matranga, Texas City Independent School District’s new executive director of Security and School Safety, has plenty of ideas about how to keep students and educators safe in an era of mass shootings, informed by a career working as a special agent for the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.
As school districts across the country look toward metal detectors and other options to prevent students taking firearms to school, Texas City’s public school district has brought in Matranga, a 1995 La Marque High School graduate and former special agent in the U.S. Secret Service.
As an agent, Matranga had been permanently assigned to protect former President Barack Obama. Now his job is to ensure the district’s 14 schools are appropriately secured.
And it’s largely up to Matranga, who started on the job in June and has spent more than $1.5 million so far on security technology and new deputies, to decide how to do that, he said.
“There are a lot of people who question the magnitude of where we’re going to take this, but if you take into consideration what happened at Santa Fe — this is just where we are in society,” Matranga said, referring to the Santa Fe High School shooting in May when eight students and two teachers were killed.
“You can be reactive or you can be proactive; I choose to be proactive, and I choose to be ready for any fight that comes our way.”
“Magnitude” is how Matranga describes how much change he’s bringing to the district’s security infrastructure, on which he’s working with a $6.5 million budget funded by a bond proposition voters approved in May. He’s already fired two deputies who weren’t performing to his standards, he said.
“People have started calling me ‘The Reaper’ because of that,” he said. “Where I come from, you don’t have a whole lot of time for bullsh--, and indecisiveness kills people.”
Other changes include new security features and additions such as student social media monitoring, 10 new deputies, a new director of security technology, an interconnected security camera network and radio-frequency-identification badges to track the district’s nearly 9,000 students, to name a few.
There’s also a new cell-phone-adaptable surveillance system, a drug-sniffing K-9 Unit and two tourniquet training sessions are scheduled for every district employee.
“That was my idea — everyone down to the janitor,” Matranga said about the tourniquet training. “Everyone should know how to properly apply a tourniquet to stop bleeding. In a shooting, you can bleed out in 45 seconds to a minute.”
These are all adjustments that Matranga, clearly energized by his new position, which comes with a $135,000 annual salary, has brought to the district after nearly 15 years working for the federal government. With a resume that includes listings such as “Counter Assault Team Operator, Special Operations Division” and “Special Agent, Presidential Protective Division,” he said his job history has given him the kind of experience he needs for his new position.
A lot of it he can’t talk about — the words “Top Secret Clearance” can be found a few times on his resume — but on Thursday in his new office at the district’s administration building, he tried to explain what he used to do for the federal government.
Putting on a video shot by and about members of the Presidential Counter Assault Team — that’s the six-man special operations team that protects the president in the White House and overseas — Matranga narrated the action.
“These are my guys,” he said whimsically as a photo of six large men decked out in night vision goggles and black uniforms flashed across a television screen. “They made their own video and sent it to me. I miss it. I miss it a lot.”
The video continued to a slow-burn action soundtrack that crescendoed as the team, all toting assault rifles, jumped out of helicopters and broke down doors during training missions around the world.
“That’s how we travel,” Matranga said, explaining why members of his former team were sliding down a rope hanging beneath a Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey vertical takeoff aircraft in the middle of the night. “I miss this ... jumping out of helicopters. I love it. I’ve probably jumped out of a moving car like one hundred thousand times.”
“This is where I want to get my deputies to,” he added. “This level of trust. These are my expectations.”
‘THE KILLER IS THE KILLER’
In light of the helicopters, top secret clearance and proximity to the president, the new position might seem like a step down to some, but Matranga said it’s an honor.
“I’ve traveled to 27 countries and two war zones and the DMZ — I consider that a war zone — and I’ve been to 46 states and worked under every living president and vice president and their families,” he said. “But I really mean it when I say this is the most rewarding thing I’ve done.”
Being in charge of security for the school district from which he graduated is something he could have never predicted, but he chalked the move up to family, he said.
His federal job put his wife — a teacher in the district — and two daughters — students at the district — through a lot, he said. But even though he doesn’t regret his past career, the new job brings a stability the family didn’t have before, he said.
Matranga said he’s treating his new job, which is a brand-new position created this year, like any of his former jobs.
Asked whether he sees a difference in protecting a U.S. president from terrorists and protecting students from a potential shooter, he asked the question back skeptically.
“Is there a difference?” he said. “You’ve got eight dead kids in Santa Fe. All those children killed in Parkland. Honestly, I think the setting is different, but the risk and the dangers are still the same. You expect to get blown up by an IED in Iraq. But five years ago, did you expect that we’d have as many mass shootings in the United States?”
“The killer is the killer,” he added. “I don’t think there’s a difference.”
FINDING A BALANCE
Still, Matranga said he understands he’s working at a school now and he doesn’t want officers with AR-15 rifles “slung up” outside the building when students are being dropped off for class. He also said he believes that security and protection are only “pieces of the puzzle.”
For example, he doubts metal detectors will help much and he believes addressing mental health and behavioral issues with students will make a big difference.
“Ninety-three percent of the cases of actual shootings could’ve been prevented through intervention and prevention early on,” he said.
Despite this acknowledgement, it’s clear from the whiteboard in Matranga’s office — filled up with the names of deputies and new security and technology vendors that he’s purchasing products from — that his current focus is on physical security.
He said he expects pushback, particularly from parents about tracking their children’s every move with RFID-equipped school badges. He doesn’t foresee too many problems, though. He thinks parents will see that what he has put in place is a good fit, he said.
“There’s a very fine balance between what’s appropriate and what’s too much, and I think I do a good job of determining that,” he said. “I don’t think that anything we’re putting in place is too intrusive.”