Cybercriminals are Targeting Schools, They are not Ready

This March, Minneapolis Public Schools district witnessed a major ransomware attack, losing thousands of private information such as students’ mental health records, sexual assault incidents, suspensions and truancy reports, child abuse allegations, special education plans, that were released online. 

In 2022, a similar incident took place in Los Angeles school district, compromising students’ psychological records. Baltimore County Public Schools had a cyberattack in 2020 that caused the district’s remote learning programs to be interrupted, its business to be frozen, and cost the school system close to $10 million. The Chambersburg Area School District in Pennsylvania was the most recent educational institution to experience a cyberattack on September 1.

School districts have grown into a frequent target for school districts across the country, where cybercrime actors are regarding school systems as easy targets, due to a lack of cybersecurity infrastructure. Although many school districts are beginning to protect that infrastructure, experts say there is still much work to be done.

Following a phishing attack in 2019, Atlanta Public Schools district deployed a private firm to look into their networks and find loopholes and vulnerabilities, according to Olufemi “Femi” Aina, the district’s executive director of information technology. Apparently, the district has also introduced security measures including multi-factor authentication on school devices, purchased insurance that covers cybersecurity liability, and backed up important school data offsite.

Additionally, the district educates both staff and kids on cybersecurity. Faculty and staff members are sent to cybersecurity training and take part in simulated phishing exercises. Multifactor authentication configuration and difficult password selection are lessons that are taught to students. 

“If you can prevent your employees or make them more aware, so that they do not click on those harmful emails, or respond to those types of messages, it can be just as effective, if not more, than a lot of different systems that we have,” Aina said.

Compromised private information like social security numbers, student health records and disability diagnoses, can result in days or weeks of missed school and lost instructional time for students. 

The federal government is also stepping in for a solution. Jill Biden, the first lady, Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, and Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, all served as cohosts of a recent Department of Education cybersecurity summit, where the agency unveiled a number of new initiatives and provided advice for school districts on how to deal with cyberthreats and what to do in the event of an attack.

According to Kristina Ishmael, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology, the education department intends to create a special council made up of the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to coordinate policy and communication between the government and the education sector in order to strengthen school districts’ cyber defenses. She described it as the “first step” in the department’s plan to safeguard educational institutions from cybersecurity dangers and support their response to assaults.

Also, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is planning on setting up a pilot cybersecurity program, along with the FCC’s E-Rate program, which was established in the early 1990s as a way to provide affordable internet for schools and libraries. 

The three-year pilot program will offer $200 million to schools and libraries eligible for the E-Rate program in order to hire cybersecurity experts and enhancing schools’ network security.

According to CoSN’s – a K-12 tech education advocacy group – CEO Keith Kruger, groups like the Consortium Networking, or CoSN have urged the FCC to upgrade the E-Rate program to include greater cybersecurity precautions. “We’ve been saying this is a five-alarm fire for the last two years,” he said. 

“None of that really solves the problem that only about one in three school districts has a full-time equivalent person dedicated to cybersecurity,” he said. 

According to Kruger, school districts needs to be creative in their tactics to lure cybersecurity professionals their district need. Such strategies can involve collaborating with nearby community colleges, technical colleges, or vocational institutions to offer internships to students enrolled in cybersecurity programs.

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