Cyber Security 101 for K-12 Districts: Back to Basics

April 03, 2019 Mark Vomend 3 min
School districts are a hot bed of sensitive information which make schools attractive targets for malicious attackers. Educators and district IT leaders need to have a plan to monitor, manage and mitigate today's security risks.

The education landscape has been elevated by the permeation of cloud-based learning and administrative tools, as well as a 1:1 student-to-device ratio in many of our nation’s schools. Students now have access to personalized, educational resources and virtual experiences that were impossible just ten years ago. Likewise, school administrators are able to more efficiently serve students through the use of cloud?based applications and data storage.

K-12 students using cloud-based applications and data on the district network

What makes this evolution possible?

Many districts have utilized the E-Rate program as a means to build out the network infrastructure necessary to support these new learning initiatives and increased traffic. But, equally important is the fortification and defense of the network from cyber security threats. As excited as students and educators are to embrace new learning tools, their widespread adoption poses an inherent risk—both to individual users and districts at large. It’s no surprise that district IT leaders identified broadband/network capacity and cyber security as a tie for their top priorities in a recent Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey.

At the beginning of the 2018–2019 school year, the FBI issued a Public Service Announcement regarding cyber threats to K-12 students and systems, warning that “U.S. school systems rapid growth of education technologies (EdTech) and widespread collection of student data could have privacy and safety implications if compromised or exploited.”

The path to securing sensitive information

School districts are a hot bed of sensitive information including student geolocation, IP addresses, health records, academic reports, and a myriad of other personally identifiable information (PII) which make schools attractive targets for malicious attackers. What’s more, some of the most disruptive security breaches actually come from within—student hacking events are on the rise, with students gaining access to change grades, post inappropriate content on school channels and disrupt network access.

With an average cost of $233 per record in a data breach1, educators and district IT leaders need to have a well-communicated, actionable plan that leverages sophisticated technology to monitor, manage and mitigate today’s security risks.

Below are several security solutions that should be considered as part of this plan.

  • A managed network security solution. Managed network security solutions are great for organizations looking for comprehensive security that is fully managed. Features such as firewall, anti-virus, content filtering, intrusion prevention and application control are infused into one robust Unified Threat Management (UTM) solution which is then managed and maintained by security experts. Managed network security solutions can aid with CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act) compliance and may also qualify in part for category two E-Rate funding.
  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM). SIEM is a combination of two separate but highly complementary security technologies. Security Information Management (SIM), which includes log management and compliance reporting, and Security Event Management (SEM), which provides real-time monitoring and incident management for security-related events from networks, security devices, systems and applications. Together, they provide an advanced layer of vigilance and detection against attempted intrusions and ease the burden of stringent compliance standards.
  • DDOS protection. A must-consider security service for every organization is distributed denial of service (DDoS) mitigation. DDoS attacks occur when a hacker takes control of Internet communications, overwhelming the network with traffic, and ultimately knocking it offline. These attacks can be very disruptive to teaching, learning, communications and day-to-day operations. DDOS mitigation services provide end-to-end monitoring, detection, validation and mitigation of DDoS threats on any network. When in place, attacks can be detected and acted on in real time, reducing the vulnerability of sensitive records and saving districts thousands in data recovery.

Technology alone should not substitute for best practices. In a CoSN survey, one?third of school IT leaders said they had not encouraged staff to update passwords and a mere 11% said they required two-factor authentication for district accounts. Simple, free measures to increase security protection include changing passwords frequently and limiting the use of a password to one system.

It is incumbent for all leaders to take the necessary steps to protect personal data. Investing in the right technology, in conjunction with implementing security policies and processes will ensure your school district remains adequately protected against even the most sophisticated attacks.

1 Ponemon Institute, “2019 Cost of a Data Breach Study: Global Overview,” July 2018

Key Takeaway
Investing in the right technology, in conjunction with implementing security policies and processes will ensure school districts remain adequately protected.

The Physical Network Location Matters and Here is Why