In a 2019 post about increasing cyber risks in K-12 schools, we cited a report, “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2018 Year in Review,” that contained sobering information about cybersecurity in local school districts across the country. According to that report, in 2018, there were 122 publicly-disclosed cybersecurity incidents affecting school districts across 38 states. Not much has changed. A more recent article looking at ransomware activity in 2023 reports there being 120 attacks against school districts thus far in the year.

Yesterday, the Biden administration announced “new actions and private commitments to bolster the nation’s cyber defense at schools.” Among the actions:

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, joined First Lady Jill Biden, to convene school administrators, educators and private sector companies to discuss best practices and new resources available to strengthen our schools’ cybersecurity, protect American families and schools, and prevent cyberattacks from disrupting our classrooms.

Perhaps more impactful in the short term are references in the announcement to (i) additional funding sources for schools, and (ii) recently released guidance, “K-12 Digital Infrastructure Brief: Defensible & Resilient,” jointly published by the U.S. Department of Education and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). In particular, the guidance  outlines, among other things, some “High-Impact Recommendations,” such as implementing multifactor authentication. Potential sources for increased funding include an FCC proposed pilot program to provide $200 million over three years. School districts might also consider possibly allocating funds that remain available from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) established during COVID-19. Also, AWS recently pledged $20 million to a grant program designed to support for training and incident response at schools.  

While it is true that school districts are often understaffed and underfunded, including in the area of cybersecurity, there some areas of potential low-hanging (and relatively inexpensive) fruit more schools might be to address more readily. One of those is incident response.

Even if a district is not in a potion to take all the steps it might want to in order to prevent an attack, it might be able to vastly improve its plans to respond to an attack. Doing so, could significantly impact the disruption to students and related communities.

The White House report notes that during the prior academic year four school had to cancel classes or close completely in response to an attack.

Below are a few basic elements that should be included in an incident response plan (IRP):

  • identifying security incidents;
  • responding to security incidents; and
  • mitigating harmful effects of security incidents.

Certainly, each of these elements might look different district to district considering size, number of locations, information systems, prior experience, cyber insurance policies, type of personal information, and state laws. But they are important elements for any plan.

More specifically, school boards will want to think about who will be doing the responding – who is on the “security incident response team.” This is a team that is organized and trained to effectively respond to security incidents. Areas to consider when forming and building a team include:

  • A strong balance of skill sets among team members (IT, legal, communications, etc.)
  • Ensure lines of communication will be available among team members during a crisis
  • Consider external parties that can provide specific expertise concerning incident response
  • Commit to regularly practicing incident response procedures for different types of attacks.

Among other things, the IRP should help direct the team on mitigation efforts. Mitigation efforts are facilitated through measures such as contingency planning, robust data backup, and recovery processes. These are areas that should not be thought about by the school board or superintendent when a security incident occurs. For example, knowing that you have a backup of student data is not enough, regularly making sure you are able to restore from backups while maintaining integrity is key to minimizing disruption to the district.   

There is a lot that can be said about steps to take toward preparedness and IRP development, but the point is these are examples of measure that can be implemented more quickly and at less cost to help a district affected by a breach. Importantly, they can minimize the impact of the breach on the district and get kids back in the classroom more quickly.  

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.