A K-12 Guide to Incident Response Plans, Challenges, and Frameworks

Imagine yourself on a cross-country road trip. You have a full tank of gas, plenty of snacks, the radio is tuned to your favorite station, and you know exactly where you’re going.

The only problem? You don’t know how to get there.

There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and if you’re not careful, you might veer off in the wrong direction. The logical thing to do is to plan your route before you hit the open road — that way, you stay the course and get to your destination safe and sound.

The same principle applies to K-12 cybersecurity incident response plans. Just like a roadmap, it pays to have a document that charts your path to success. In other words, it’s essential to have an incident response (IR) plan helping you protect student data from falling into the wrong hands.

In this guide, we’ll help you understand incident response, overcome your cybersecurity challenges, and choose a framework for putting an IR plan into action.

Why planning makes perfect

Incident response is the process by which a school district handles a cybersecurity incident, such as a data breach or cyber attack. It involves a step-by-step workflow that defines exactly what must be done at various stages of an incident’s lifecycle.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect your IT department to memorize their exact responsibilities. That’s why the entire process is normally documented in a formal incident response plan.

Think of an IR plan as a playbook that establishes the roles, policies, and protocols essential to your specific incident response team. It’s important reference material that serves as a resource before, during, and after an attack.

Proactive vs. reactive risk management

IR planning is crucial to effective data protection. In fact, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recommends schools create and regularly update a standardized response plan in its recent K-12 report.

Why? Because IR plans ensure everyone is on the same page and enable you to operate as a well-oiled machine from start to finish. And, because the response team is working in sync to mitigate threats and prevent them in the first place, your district can proactively safeguard sensitive information.

Rather than reacting to incidents after the fact, proactive risk management allows you to get a jumpstart on potential and ongoing threats. Generally, the faster you intervene, the better you can minimize the damage.

On the other hand, reactive risk management has the opposite effect. Mitigating an incident after the fact will inevitably leave you with a much bigger mess to clean up. You stand a much better chance of protecting student data if you’re constantly monitoring, identifying, and resolving risks as they appear.


Common K-12 cybersecurity challenges

Despite its advantages, many school districts aren’t leveraging the incident response process. In fact, at least a third of all U.S. schools lack any type of incident response plan whatsoever.

Unfortunately, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The truth is that there are a lot of barriers standing in between K-12 districts and effective cybersecurity. Luckily, each problem has a solution.

Too much data, too little time

School districts are grappling with information overload. At a typical organization, a security analyst receives between 20-25 alerts per day on average.

Although schools operate on a much smaller scale, larger districts may be comparably overwhelmed. They’re creating, processing, storing, and sharing treasure troves of sensitive information about students, teachers, and staff members. Most schools have small security teams — if any at all — that simply don’t have the time or resources to monitor so much data simultaneously.

One way you can overcome this obstacle is to automate as many security functions as possible. For instance, a cloud monitoring tool can automatically patrol your cloud domain, detect potential threats, and take action on your behalf. And, because it’s working behind the scenes, your IT staff can focus their attention on other critical tasks that protect student data.

Lack of expertise

Even the world’s largest enterprises struggle to recruit, hire, and retain talented cybersecurity professionals. It’s even tougher on school districts that don’t have the funds to compete with enterprise-level salaries.

Indeed, CISA reports that many schools are struggling to fill gaps in their security team. The personnel they do have tend to rely on outdated training and aren’t aligned with current best practices. Even worse, many districts don’t have staff members with any training at all.

According to the 2021 Nationwide Cybersecurity Review (NCSR), K-12 schools scored an overall average maturity score of just 3.55 out of 7. In simpler terms, they have a lot of catching up to do.

Schools can remedy this knowledge gap by reaching out to third-party experts. Several organizations have popped up in recent years seeking to help K-12 districts overcome their cybersecurity challenges. The two most prominent include:

Joining these collaboration groups can help you access cybersecurity resources, stay abreast of changes to the risk environment, and know what threats might be lurking in the shadows.


Lack of funding

School districts don’t have much to spare on cybersecurity. Educators point to a shortage of sufficient funding as one of their biggest challenges. In fact, one-fifth of schools spend less than 1% of their IT budget on cybersecurity, according to the NCSR.

Applying to grant programs can help you secure funding for your security efforts, including the creation of an incident response plan.

Choosing an IR framework

Frameworks exist to help organizations expedite the creation of their IR plan. They act as the bones of the document and establish a tried-and-tested workflow for an effective response process.

There are many frameworks to choose from, but two stand above the rest. Generally, organizations pick between one developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and another created by the SANS Institute. Let’s examine each one in more detail:

The NIST Incident Response Framework vs SANS Incident Response Framework

The NIST advocates a four-step workflow:

  1. Preparation
  2. Detection & Analysis
  3. Containment, Eradication, & Recovery
  4. Post-Incident Activity

By contrast, the SANS Institute promotes a six-step process:

  1. Preparation
  2. Identification
  3. Containment
  4. Eradication
  5. Recovery
  6. Lessons Learned

Ultimately, neither is better than the other — each framework highlights essential aspects of incident response. However, for the purposes of explaining them in more detail, we’ll take a closer look at the SANS Institute’s framework since its actions are broken down into individual steps.

So, the core elements of any incident response process include:

  1. Preparation: At this stage, schools must review existing policies and establish a standardized security policy. They should perform a risk assessment to understand their potential threats and weaknesses, then identify measures to resolve them.
  2. Identification: The security team must monitor IT systems, including the cloud domain, to detect deviations and possible threats. They should collect evidence of the breach once it is discovered to determine its type and severity.
  3. Containment: With the risk identified, it must be swiftly dealt with. The team should isolate the risk and keep it contained. This minimizes the damage and prevents hackers from stealing additional data.
  4. Eradication: Once contained, the threat is removed. By identifying the root cause of the attack, the team can take action to prevent similar incidents in the future.
  5. Recovery: Systems are brought back online, services are restored, and the school can return to normal operations. The team should test, verify, and monitor affected systems to ensure the threat is fully eradicated.
  6. Lessons Learned: Post-incident activities are crucial. No later than two weeks following an event, the IT department should look back to gather insights and understand how it could have better mitigated the threat. These lessons can be fed back into the IR plan for continuous improvement.


Putting your framework to the test

Now that you have a framework in hand, it’s time to build a plan around it and put it into action. Not sure how? Here are a few tips:

  1. Involve your stakeholders: Get staff members, administrators, teachers, and parents involved in the creation of your IR plan. This not only keeps everyone informed as to how you’re protecting student data, but also allows them to voice their concerns.
  2. Implement an early warning system: A cloud monitoring tool can automatically detect potential threats and deviations from normal student behavior. For instance, if someone is downloading excessive volumes of data it could be a sign of an ongoing attack. The solution can recognize this irregular pattern, investigate the incident, and provide you details as to which account is in question and what information they’ve downloaded.
  3. Test and update your plan: Risk environments change. Hackers get smarter and more daring. Your IR plan has to be equally dynamic. Don’t be afraid to test out your plan and implement new policies to keep current with the latest threats. This helps you to stay a step or two ahead of bad actors trying to get ahold of your students’ data.

Lastly, don’t reinvent the wheel. We know school districts like yours don’t have all the time in the world to design an IR plan from scratch. Luckily, you don’t have to — we did it for you.

Our cybersecurity incident response plan template is made specifically for K-12 school districts. Use it to map out your cybersecurity process, avoid bumps in the road, and steer clear of cyber danger. Together, we can accelerate your journey to a safe and effective digital environment.

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