What Is A Cyber Incident Response Policy?

Imagine your school district experiences a cybersecurity event, such as a data breach.

  1. Where do you begin?
  2. Who do you contact?
  3. How do you respond?

These questions, among others, are essential to protecting sensitive data. But, if your security team isn’t well-prepared, you may end up scrambling for answers.

Fortunately, you don’t have to search high and low if you already have a cyber incident response policy to reference. Think of it as a blueprint for mitigating cyber threats before the damage is done.

In this guide, we’ll explain the purpose of a cyber incident response policy, the downfalls of not having one, and how your school district can kick-start the process.

What is incident response?

An incident response policy, or information security policy, is a document that specifies how an organization prepares itself to detect and resolve cyber threats. This includes any potential security incident that compromises institutional data, such as a malicious insider, accidental data leak, external data breach, or ransomware attack.

The incident response policy is a precursor to a more detailed document called the incident response plan (IRP). In short, the IRP describes the exact protocols and procedures a security team should follow when mitigating a cybersecurity threat. For example, this may involve isolating the affected system, containing the threat, or notifying law enforcement.

Why is incident response planning important?

Incident response planning is an essential component of incident management, which aims to strategically minimize an event’s damage. In K-12, that means limiting the impact security incidents may have on students, staff members, the school district, or the community overall.

Critically, the incident response plan identifies the exact individuals responsible for executing its procedures. These stakeholders are known as the Cyber Incident Response Team (CIRT). Moreover, it details how and when they must perform certain responsibilities, such as filing reports or escalating the event to a higher level of severity.

Why does this matter? Because, during an active data breach, speed and efficiency make all the difference. Knowing what to do at a moment’s notice is key to containing the threat and preventing it from accessing sensitive data. Plus, it can save you from having to enact disaster recovery protocols, which are reserved for major hardware or system failures.


Common K-12 challenges

To demonstrate the value of incident response planning, let’s consider the obstacles an average K-12 information technology (IT) department faces when managing cybersecurity:

  • Unpreparedness: Most security incidents happen without warning, and unfortunately, at an increasingly frequent rate. According to officials from the Center for Internet Security, K-12 school districts have experienced a 30% quarter-over-quarter increase in cyberattacks since the end of 2022. Without a well-documented and tested incident response plan, teams struggle to respond effectively when events inevitably occur.
  • Lack of visibility: Early threat detection can make or break the incident response process. If you’re aware of cyber threats soon enough, you can prevent their spread. However, many schools don’t have detection capabilities in the cloud, which is where many incidents originate. Some fail to realize their network security tools don’t protect Google Workspace or Microsoft 365, rendering them vulnerable to exposure.
  • Knowledge gap: Sadly, not every district has the resources to recruit and hire full-time cybersecurity staff. This means they lack the requisite expertise to manage certain aspects of incident management. Worse yet, they may not know incident handling best practices, meaning they don’t have the experience to identify potential vulnerabilities.
  • No documentation: Gathering evidence is a can’t-miss incident response procedure. Analyzing and auditing logs allows you to understand the full scope of an event, thereby ensuring an effective incident response. However, some schools don’t have protocols that clearly define how or when teams should do so.
  • Poor communication: Knowing when to alert team members, families, and law enforcement is tricky. Without an IRP, you may not have established communication channels or procedures for notifying stakeholders at the most appropriate time. Even worse, if your alerts are too sensitive, you risk suppressing the response of a real, more damaging threat.

In a nutshell, these hurdles are what a cyber incident response policy aims to avoid. Failure to address these concerns or establish an effective incident response process can lead to severe consequences:

  • Sensitive data loss: Whether malicious or not, it takes just one security incident to violate student privacy — or worse, put them in danger. Can you imagine what might happen if a cybercriminal got hold of a child’s personally identifiable information?
  • Downtime: Let’s say an attack takes a critical information system offline. This isn’t just costly or disruptive, it could interrupt student learning. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), cyber threats can close schools for up to three weeks at a time.
  • Financial loss: The GAO also found that the financial impacts of poor information security can be broad, ranging between $50,000 to $1 million per incident. These costs include replacing hardware and enhancing security, not to mention the price of rising insurance premiums.
  • Noncompliance: Inadequate incident handling could lead school districts to violate strict data privacy laws. Some states have strict breach notification requirements, but without organization, districts may not report incidents within the necessary timeframe.


What is the proper incident response process?

Creating an incident response policy from scratch is difficult. Luckily, organizations like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have pre-established frameworks you can use to get started.

The NIST Incident Response framework is a four-step process. Let’s review each phase individually to better understand their core components:

1. Preparation

As the name implies, this phase involves ensuring your district is ready for a future incident. The better you prepare, the better chance you have of an effective incident response.

You may perform several activities at this stage, such as:

  • Evaluating the risk landscape by conducting an endpoint, network, or cloud security assessment.
  • Identifying areas of improvement and resolving known vulnerabilities.
  • Training the incident response team on new threats and best practices.
  • Developing a communication plan.
  • Testing your incident response plan against plausible scenarios.

2. Detection and analysis

You can’t eliminate cyber threats if you’re unaware of them or don’t know what you’re dealing with. That’s why detection and analysis are two of the most vital incident response procedures. Without them, you’re essentially shooting blind into the void.

According to the NIST framework, this phase involves monitoring your environment for abnormalities and suspicious activity. For instance, a student account may be downloading a lot of files — possibly indicating a cyber attack.

Critically, gathering evidence during this process allows you to confirm the threat and classify its severity. You wouldn’t approach a phishing attack the same you would a ransomware strike. In other words, analyzing the risk potential helps you decide the best course of action.

3. Containment, eradication, and recovery

This step includes three subphases:

  • Containment: The cyber incident response team isolates the affected system, preventing it from spreading elsewhere.
  • Eradication: The team identifies the event’s root cause and patches the issue.
  • Recovery: Once the threat is neutralized, you can safely bring impacted resources back online. However, monitoring is necessary to ensure the risk is fully mitigated.

4. Post-incident activity

The security incident may be over, but there’s more work to be done. This phase is an opportunity to grow from the experience. How? By evaluating the team’s performance, gathering lessons learned, and incorporating them back into the IR plan.

Glossing over this step is a big mistake. The insights you learn could help you manage a future incident more effectively, avoiding negative outcomes in the process.

Improve incident response with ManagedMethods

At ManagedMethods, our goal is to make incident response as straightforward as possible for K-12 school districts. So, we’ve developed two solutions that can help you expedite response protocols and get ahead of emerging risks.

With a platform like Cloud Monitor, you gain deep visibility over your cloud domains. Whether it be Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or both, you can leverage data loss prevention capabilities to keep personally identifiable information under lock and key. It scans your environment for risky activity and alerts you when a policy violation occurs, allowing you to leap into action.

Content Filter, on the other hand, is a browser-based web filtering tool that blocks inappropriate content on student devices. That way, nobody’s accessing dangerous websites — especially those designed to steal their sensitive data.

The result? Early visibility into your threat landscape and a pivotal first line of defense. With Content Filter on the frontlines and Cloud Monitor patrolling the skies, you’re well-protected from cyber threats both internally and externally.

To help make your life even easier, we’ve developed a cyber incident response plan template. Made specifically for K-12, it’s sure to kick-start your IR policy and bring your cybersecurity strategy up to speed.

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