Won’t Get Fooled Again: Cybersecurity in K-12 Education

by | Opinion

Halloween is many weeks away, but the spooky season arrived early this year for educators in Connecticut. By compromising the email of a single administrator in the New Haven public school system, hackers were able to steal upwards of $6 million. The news no doubt sent a shiver down the spines of administrators, leaving many with the same question: how do we make sure that doesn’t happen to us?

Ensuring the cybersecurity of K-12 schools has never been more critical. Phishing, ransomware attacks, and data breaches pose existential threats to critical infrastructure: potentially disrupting learning environments, compromising sensitive data, and decimating school budgets. We at the Technology Management Group (TMG) have some practical advice on how to beef up your cyber defense, safeguarding institutions and students alike from these evolving threats.

Tips for Improving Educational Cyber Defense

1. Educate the Educators

The human element often serves as the first line of defense against cyber attack. It’s essential to empower educators, students, and staff with a solid understanding of cybersecurity best practices. Offer regular training sessions that cover topics such as identifying phishing emails, recognizing social engineering tactics, and reporting suspicious activities. For example, any urgently phrased demand for payment must be viewed with suspicion, even if it appears to have been sent from a legitimate source. (New Haven administrators “got got,” as they say, by falling for what appeared to be real transfer requests.) By nurturing a culture of cyber awareness, you create a united front against potential threats.

2. Fortify Passwords and User Authentication

Passwords remain the cornerstone of digital security. Encourage the use of strong, unique passwords that combine uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Implement a password policy that enforces regular changes and discourages password reuse. Also consider implementing single sign-on (SSO) in conjunction with multi-factor authentication (MFA) solutions, the combination of which can simplify access while maintaining security.

3. Recognize (but Don’t Surrender to) Resource Limitations

Tight budgets and understaffing are evergreen challenges in the public education sector is. This is a problem in every aspect of our schools and cybersecurity is certainly not exempt. Schools need to think clearly about near-term, maximum-impact changes that they can make to enhance security (such as many of the solutions on this list) as well as planning for the long term. Furthermore, there are options available to help address resourcing issues, such as the State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program (SLCGP). Also look into cloud and subscription solutions for IT, which may provide a greater “bang for your buck” than trying to handle everything in-house. For example, TMG’s industry-changing cyberCTRL is the first Cybersecurity-as-a Service (CaaS) subscription program; it can be tailored to school districts of any size and need.

4. Stay Current with Software Updates

Educational institutions rely heavily on various software applications for teaching and administrative purposes. Regularly update operating systems, applications, and security software to eliminate vulnerabilities that cybercriminals might exploit. Prioritize the installation of security patches to minimize risks. Automating updates whenever possible can streamline this process.

5. Implement Robust Data Backups

We’re only halfway through 2023, and more than 120 schools have already faced ransomware attacks. What’s the nemesis of ransomware? A robust data backup strategy. Regularly back up your data to offline or cloud-based storage solutions. This practice helps ensure that in the event of a ransomware attack, you have the ability to restore your systems without succumbing to extortion.

6. Safeguard Data Privacy and Improve Compliance

Adhere to data privacy regulations such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ensure that student information remains confidential. Establish stringent access controls for student records and sensitive data. Regularly review and update data protection policies to align with the evolving regulatory landscape.

7. Plan for Rapid Action in Crisis

Hope for the best, sure, but prepare for the worst by developing a comprehensive incident response plan. Define roles and responsibilities for different stakeholders in the event of a cyber incident. Conduct regular drills and simulations to ensure that everyone knows how to respond effectively, minimizing the impact of potential breaches.

8. Foster Digital Citizenship Among Students

Equip students with the knowledge and skills to be responsible digital citizens. Teach them about the risks associated with sharing personal information online, the importance of using strong passwords, and the potential consequences of cyberbullying. By educating students about cybersecurity from an early age, you empower them to navigate the digital world safely.

A Secure Educational Journey

As the education sector continues its digital transformation, safeguarding institutions and students from cyber threats becomes an integral part of a safe learning environment.

Remember, cybersecurity is an ongoing journey, not a one-time destination. Stay informed about emerging threats, evolve your defenses, and cultivate a culture of security awareness. A strong security posture is not only about protecting budgets and data; it’s about protecting the future of education and the students who represent it. By adopting proactive cybersecurity measures, educational institutions can contribute to the growth and development of students in a secure and technologically enriched environment.

One last thought: while it was relatively easy for us to draw up this list of advice, we realize it’s another matter to actually implement it all. K-12 administrators have overly full plates at the best of times–and where cybersecurity is concerned, these are definitely not the best of times. You might consider if it’s time to bring in some expert help.

Could you use some additional insight into how to protect your specific organization? Contact us today!


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