The Ultimate Guide to K-12 Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is a hot topic in the U.S. school system. In this guide, we’ll explain why that’s the case, the importance of data protection, and what you can do to enhance security in your school district.

What is K-12 cybersecurity?

K-12 cybersecurity is the art of protecting networks, devices, and sensitive information from unauthorized access, criminal use, or public exposure. In simpler terms, it’s about keeping your school district safe from cyber threats that could negatively impact operations, student privacy, school safety, or all of the above.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the effort, much of the American school system was well on its way to embracing digital technology. Now, over 90% of school districts use cloud services like Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or a combination of the two. Consequently, with attack surfaces stretched further than ever before, cybersecurity controls have never been more relevant to the education sector.

Branches of cybersecurity

Think of cybersecurity as an umbrella term. In the wider context of cyber defense, school districts must also consider its various branches:

  • Infrastructure security includes physical tools that safeguard devices from unauthorized access and inappropriate use — like login credentials or multi-factor authentication.
  • Endpoint security, such as antivirus software, protects the device from software-related cybersecurity threats.Network security uses firewalls and other cyber defense mechanisms to monitor and eliminate malicious network activity.
  • Cloud security protects data stored in cloud applications, such as Google Drive or Microsoft Word.
  • Identity and access management (IAM) focuses on verifying legitimate users and ensuring their permissions are kept to a minimum.

In combination, these form the key components of a multi-layered cybersecurity strategy, where each level builds off of and supports the others for maximum security.

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Types of K-12 cyber threats

Cybersecurity threats come in many shapes and sizes and can attack your district in numerous ways. Here are some of the most relevant to the K-12 school system:

  • Malware is malicious software, or a virus, that infects your district’s information systems to steal personal information about students and staff. According to Microsoft, education is far and away the most frequently impacted industry by this particular cyber risk.
  • Ransomware is a type of malware threat that harvests and blocks access to sensitive information until your school district pays for its safe return.
  • Phishing attacks scam users by tricking them into sharing personal information and/or login credentials. They may impersonate legitimate staff members, convincing others to click on malicious links or attachments.
  • Account takeovers occur when hackers gain access to a privileged account, such as through malware, a phishing attack, or other threat vectors.
  • Insider threats originate internally, such as when a student or staff member leaks sensitive student data, whether purposefully or by accident.

Why is cybersecurity important?

Cyberattacks can devastate an unprotected school district. Even a single cyber incident can have significant short- and long-term impacts, such as:

  • Financial damage: Government research estimates the average cost of school cyberattacks can range between $50,000 and $1 million.
  • Loss of learning: Data breaches also can disrupt student learning for up to three weeks.
  • Noncompliance: Schools are subject to strict government regulations about data security and privacy. Suffering a cyber incident can put you at risk of violating your requirements, which can have monetary repercussions, such as a loss of E-Rate funding.
  • School safety: Most importantly, cyberattacks put your students at risk. Not only do they violate privacy, but they can expose personal information to the public — where anyone can use it at their discretion.

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Does K-12 have a cybersecurity problem?

The short answer is yes. That’s why President Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act in 2021, prompting the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to research the problem.

In 2023, CISA unveiled its findings. Per the report, cyber threats increased exponentially during the pandemic. Even worse, most school districts share common challenges that make cyber defense an uphill battle:

  1. Lack of cybersecurity training: Most districts don’t employ full-time cybersecurity professionals. Schools that do often don’t have updated training or experience, in part due to limited resources.
  2. Lack of funding: Some public schools simply don’t have the budget to afford dedicated staff on a full-time or even part-time basis.
  3. Lack of documented processes: Without a concrete cybersecurity strategy, many districts are flying blind when it comes to cyber risk management.

Compounding these issues is the rate at which cybersecurity threats are attacking school districts. According to the K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 SIX), the average district experiences at least one cyber incident per day. And, per CISA’s data, 46% of schools that haven’t been targeted believe they’ll eventually be attacked.

The only question: How prepared will you be when that day arrives?

How to protect student data

Fortunately, there’s ample opportunity for the K-12 school system to enhance its cyber preparedness. Here are some ways you can help your district protect sensitive information from unauthorized access and exposure:

  • Develop security policies: Form a documented strategy for your entire district, establishing the cybersecurity measures you’ll take to defend against potential threats.
  • Plan your incident response: Create a cyber incident response plan to standardize your workflow for mitigating and containing threats.
  • Prioritize cybersecurity training: Use free learning tools to give students and staff a crash course on cyber best practices.
  • Use web filtering solutions: Leverage a tool like Content Filter to block access to malicious websites and prevent malware infections.
  • Monitor cloud activity: Use a data loss prevention platform like Cloud Monitor to automatically detect and root out security threats before they impact your district.

With ManagedMethods, you gain two additional layers of protection. By blocking malicious websites and inappropriate content, you can eliminate a big source of vulnerability while supporting compliance. And, with data loss prevention, your cloud security posture can rise to the occasion — whether you use Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or both.

Ready to boost K-12 cybersecurity? Request a free cloud security audit today.

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