How to create an incident response plan for your school district

Quarterbacks have a playbook. Actors have a script. But school IT departments? They have an incident response plan.

Or, at least, they should, according to K12 SIX — the country’s only nonprofit dedicated solely to K-12 cybersecurity. Why? Because school districts are processing loads of sensitive information. We’re talking about the type of data that malicious cybercriminals would love to get their hands on. And once they do, there’s no telling what can happen.

Suffice to say, incident response planning is becoming increasingly essential for your school district. But what, exactly, is an incident response plan? How does it work, and how do you build one?

In this guide, we’ll answer these questions and show you everything you need to create, test, and execute a solid incident response plan in your district.

What is an incident response plan?

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), incident response planning refers to the documentation of a predetermined set of instructions for detecting, responding to, and limiting the consequences of a cyber incident.

In simpler terms, it’s a playbook for how your district’s IT department should manage a data breach or leak, should one occur. Think of it a bit like a lesson plan: Similar to how a teacher maps out their daily lesson from start to finish, your security team should also map out the steps it must take to mitigate a cyberattack.

Generally, the point of an incident response plan is to keep your school district prepared for the inevitable risk. If you’re caught off guard by an incident, chances are you’ll have a tougher time organizing an effective response.

A solid incident response plan typically includes the following information:

    • The roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in risk management.
    • How the plan relates back to and supports the school district.
    • Procedures for every phase of the incident (more on those later).
    • Protocols for documenting the incident and learning from its results.

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The 6 phases of incident response

In 2012, the SANS Institute published a white paper that outlined the six essential phases of the incident response lifecycle. Today, it’s still considered the gold standard and used by countless cybersecurity professionals around the world.

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Let’s take a look at the six-step framework:

  1. Preparation: Incident response planning needs to begin early with an assessment of the risks within your environment. This allows you to prioritize security issues, identify your most sensitive assets, and remedy any existing vulnerabilities before it’s too late.
  2. Identification: At this stage, schools should proactively monitor their data and watch out for anomalous behavior or strange activity, which could be a sign of an incident.
  3. Containment: When a threat is uncovered, the team’s priority should be containing the incident and keeping damage to a minimum, both in the short and long term.
  4. Eradication: Once contained, the school should investigate the breach or leak’s root cause, remove malware, and implement measures to prevent similar risks in the future.
  5. Recovery: Next, critical systems need to be brought back online if they went down or were disrupted. This is key for returning to a state of normalcy.
  6. Review: Perhaps the most important phase, schools should collect feedback and feed lessons learned into their incident response plan. This continuous improvement ensures the district reduces its susceptibility to attack in the future.

Creating an incident response plan

Now that you know the basics, let’s get started building your own incident response plan. To speed up the process, here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Classify data by sensitivity: In other words, categorize information based on how damaging it would be if it were exposed. This helps you focus your efforts on the areas of highest sensitivity rather than data that likely isn’t being targeted.
  • Keep it simple: Complicated plans end up confusing people and disrupting a very time-sensitive process. Make certain that details and procedures are easy to understand so that everyone can execute quickly in real time.
  • Identify stakeholders: Everyone has a role to play, but some staff may need to be more involved than others. Make sure everyone knows their place in the plan and what they need to do once an incident kicks off.
  • Know your risks: Conduct a proper audit to determine if you have any existing vulnerabilities. Also, identify all potential risks, such as software vulnerabilities or third-party apps, that could jeopardize your data.
  • Test plans regularly: Once you have a plan in place, put it to the test. See if your team can execute it in a timely manner and tweak your workflows accordingly.

Lastly, it may be a good idea to use an incident response template to get off the ground. K12 SIX, for instance, has a special template based on NIST guidelines designed specifically for K-12 school districts. Check it out here.

How to take your planning to the next level

The first three phases of the process are usually what makes or breaks a response’s success. Schools — which don’t usually have the same resources as enterprise-level security teams — need to make do with what they have. This might mean a small team of technicians who may or may not have cybersecurity expertise.

To bridge the gap, schools can use a cloud security platform to monitor their cloud domain. With a tool like ManagedMethods, districts can automatically detect unseen risks and rapidly take action. In combination with a solid response plan, ManagedMethods empowers schools to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

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