Expert Viewpoint

How To Evaluate & Nurture Your District's Cybersecurity Readiness

The 2022 edition of K12 Security Information Exchange’s State of K–12 Cybersecurity Year in Review report states that ransomware has surpassed other types of cyberattacks as the most common threat perpetrated against K–12 schools in the United States.

These ransomware attacks are carried out by sophisticated cybercriminals who often work overseas in countries that U.S. law enforcement cannot reach. Intentionally targeting K-12 districts, these malicious hackers see public and private schools as easy targets for collecting ransom payments and stealing sensitive, personal data of teachers and students. School districts provide a tantalizing target to many cyber criminals because public schools are widely known to lack the resources and IT personnel required to respond to attacks. A school district’s broad attack surface provides a host of vulnerabilities due to a lack of cybersecurity safeguards and the improper storage of documents on cloud drives.

Countering such ransomware attacks with the proper tools and resources can be especially difficult if there is little to no involvement from all stakeholders — or if there’s no room in the IT budget for enhanced cybersecurity efforts.

When resources and stakeholder buy-in are limited, IT professionals can still bolster their school’s security defense measures and limit exposure to attacks by strategically implementing cyber benchmarks.

Evaluate Your Digital Transformation Readiness and Maturity

Designing and implementing security benchmarks for K–12 begins with developing a technology strategy through a full digital-transformation assessment. Technology is embedded in nearly every facet of an education’s ecosystem, and that ecosystem is constantly changing. Participating in such assessment will gauge where your organization stands by evaluating:

  • Data-driven insights
  • Digital learning capabilities
  • IT governance
  • Information & systems integration
  • Infrastructure
  • Access management & authentication

Operating your system around digital identities will ultimately enable your district to maximize instructional time, safeguard its learning environment, and minimize the load on the IT department. Additionally, it will provide leadership and IT with the opportunity to work together and develop actionable steps that will help lead the district forward.

Build an IT Staff Roadmap with District Leaders

The next step is to create an accountable IT department that is annually evaluated on its portfolio of aggregate skill sets. The threat landscape is ever-changing and requires continuous monitoring from IT to ensure financial efficiency and the most updated technological responses to potential threats.

That said, a strong IT department is not successful until it has the support and guidance of school leadership. Cyber risks become enhanced when there are not enough cohesive conversations and mutual partnerships between IT, superintendents, educators, and security companies.

Schools need to be on the same page and operating with the same perspective to produce a positive effect. To do so, they must establish a better-together mentality between curriculum and leadership. Without it, schools get placed in a difficult position when working with multiple, individualized companies. Forming a healthy culture of discussion and conversations of specific risks between curriculum and IT can promote an inclusive approach to working towards a more formalized risk and compliance program.

Promote an Environment of Healthy Digital Citizenship

With security risk management as everyone’s responsibility, promoting responsible digital citizenship among faculty and students can encourage a bolstered cyber posture. Digital citizenship is the continuous development of responsible, appropriate, and empowered use of technology in education — and it goes beyond personal responsibility. It’s also about being actively aware of possible problems and thinking ahead of the risks. Students also must be trained to be security-aware in their password strength, what viruses and malware are, and how to safeguard their digital footprints.

Establishing internet hygiene in this way is a foundational approach to cybersecurity that can be nurtured and expanded to reduce weak entry points. But securing your digital environment does not have to be an overly complex or expensive process. In fact, when establishing identity and access management, the entire education ecosystem will benefit from the consistent management while providing insights to classroom analytics and advancing single sign-on. Implementing a standard, secure baseline for a proactive cyber framework can help protect districts from the most common threats they face on a day-to-day basis.

Data Inventory, Endpoint Detection, and Fire Drills

By being consciously aware of the location and amount of stored data, administrators can create a layer of protection that will help guide informed decisions during an attack. Additional benchmarks that are important to consider include establishing backup and recovery plans that will operate cohesively to create, store, and proactively test data availability.

Actively enacting endpoint protection also can provide consistent security to mobile devices, laptops and desk computers. And finally, implementing “fire drill” testing that continuously verifies resilience within your firewall configurations can reduce the risk of a breach.

The digital education ecosystem is home to a variety of students, teachers, and staff with a wide range of unique needs that require protection. Establishing healthy, proactive cybersecurity practices is essential to their safety, and it is up to administrators to create innovative responses and safeguards that will make a true difference in the wake of growing cyber challenges.

About the Author

Michael Webb is Chief Technology Officer at Identity Automation, based in Houston, Texas.