How to create an incident response plan: A step-by-step guide for K-12 school districts

You don’t have to be a cybersecurity expert to know it’s always helpful to plan ahead. After all, preparation makes perfect — especially when you’re talking about protecting student data.

Never made an incident response plan before? Luckily, we’re here to help. Read on for step-by-step instructions on how to create an incident response plan and start safeguarding your district from cyber threats.

Why do school districts need an incident response plan?

Before you can understand the importance of incident response planning you have to know the basics. Let’s explore the world of incident response plans and why they’re so vital to protecting your school district’s sensitive data.

What is a cyber incident response plan?

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a cybersecurity incident response plan — also known as an IR plan — is a documented set of instructions and procedures for detecting, responding to, and mitigating the impact of an attack against an organization’s information systems.

In simpler terms, incident response plans offer a proactive and prescriptive framework for managing an upcoming and ongoing security incident, which can include a data breach, cyber attack, or insider threat. Your security team should treat the IR plan as a go-to resource and playbook for executing your cyber risk management strategy and effectively protecting the district from potential harm.

Types of security incidents

The unfortunate reality of the American school system is that incident response plans are just as necessary as homework, textbooks, and pencils. Why? Because U.S. school districts are under attack like never before, fending off an onslaught of threat vectors that are chomping at the bit to get their hands on sensitive data.

You may not realize it, but your district is sitting on a goldmine of valuable information. More than just academic records and transcripts, you’re processing Social Security numbers, financial data, phone numbers, and home addresses. This information can go for big money on the dark web, which is why hackers are making a concentrated effort to crack your network security.

With a wide variety of increasingly sophisticated attack strategies, cybercriminals are targeting K-12 at record speed. Here’s a nonexhaustive list of security incidents you might encounter:

  • Malware
  • Ransomware
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
  • Phishing attempts
  • Malicious data leaks, such as an insider threat
  • Denial-of-service attacks
  • SQL injections
  • Account takeovers
  • Third-party apps security breach

For more details on cyber threats like these, check out our crash course on K-12 data security risks.

Consequences of a data breach or accidental leak

Bad actors are eyeing your sensitive data at a greater volume and velocity today than in years prior. Sadly, it only takes one successful breach to open Pandora’s box and expose student information to the public.

And if that happens? You’ll likely run into a number of terrible consequences:

  • Cost: A security incident can cost your district an enormous sum of money. Globally, the average data breach comes with a price tag of over $4.35 million — but in the United States, that sum more than doubles to a total of $9.44 million. If you fall victim to a cyber attack, you may end up paying for legal fees, fines, new security tools, breach notification costs, and technology repairs, just to name a few.Some schools impacted by ransomware have coughed up hefty ransom payments in exchange for their student data. Take the Little Rock School District, for instance. After a 2022 data breach, the school board voted to pay $250,000 in hopes of retrieving their information.
  • Downtime: Successful cyber attacks can also take down important IT resources, ultimately impacting student learning. Classrooms often shut down for several days while the affected system recovers. According to Comparitech research, U.S. schools suffered average downtime of 11.65 days in 2022 — a huge increase from just over 4 days the year before. A recent government report indicates that recovery time could take anywhere from two to nine months in severe circumstances, with loss of learning ranging up to three weeks.
  • Compliance: As the nation’s cybersecurity problem gains more attention, new school data privacy laws and regulations are coming into effect. From California to Texas to Massachusetts, states are enacting strict policies and reporting requirements your district may have to follow. Violating legislation could spur a range of consequences, including fines and loss of government funding.
  • Safety: Worst of all, there’s no guarantee what could happen once a cybercriminal has access to a student’s home address. Whether it be identity theft, harassment, or even stalking, the possibilities are endlessly scary.


Benefits of incident response planning

As if you don’t have enough reason to create an IR plan, it’s also important to consider the advantages of having one. Not only do incident response plans limit the effects of security events, but they also help you:

  • Act faster: The quicker you can mitigate a threat, the better chance you have of reducing its damage. With a documented set of procedures in place, your security team can step into action at a moment’s notice.
  • Prevent disaster recovery: Speedy incident management can save you from having to implement a more complex and costly disaster recovery plan.
  • Minimize downtime: Well-planned incident handling protocols can help you spot risks before they drastically impact an affected system, thus keeping your critical resources up and running without hindering the classroom experience.
  • Simplify compliance: Having a cyber incident response plan can help you adhere to strict regulations, safeguard sensitive data, and notify law enforcement when you’re legally required to do so.
  • Improve student safety: Proactive cyber risk management is key to protecting students from digital (and physical) harm.

What’s included in an incident response plan?

By now you understand why incident management is such an integral part of your school’s data security strategy — but what does it actually document? Let’s take a closer look at the core components of any effective incident response plan and why they’re important.

1. A clearly defined strategy with goals and objectives

The first foundational element you’ll need to establish is how the incident response process will factor into your overarching data protection strategy. More importantly, clearly articulate how the IR plan supports your objectives (which in this case should be protecting student data).

This section helps your stakeholders understand the importance of the plan. Better yet, it creates awareness, keeps everyone on the same page, and ensures that the resource is taken seriously. After all, the IR plan is no use if your response team isn’t referencing it in the first place.

2. Team roles and responsibilities

IR plans are designed to be executed by a designated response team. What’s key is that your response team members understand and take ownership of their individual roles and responsibilities, as each plays an important part in detecting, mitigating, and recovering from a future incident.

Your plan must clearly establish which person is responsible for certain aspects of incident handling. Confusion may cause critical tasks to fall by the wayside during a crisis, therefore severely undercutting team performance.

3. Procedures for each phase of the incident response process

The document must outline every step of the response process from start to finish, as well as what must be done at each stage. This forms a prescriptive and iterative framework for navigating an event’s lifecycle, including before, during, and after the incident.

We’ll discuss these stages in more detail later on. But, for now, the high-level incident response process is as follows:

  • Preparation
  • Detection and Analysis
  • Containment, Eradication, and Recovery
  • Post-Incident Activity


4. Communication protocols

An active cyber attack can feel like mayhem, especially when you’re part of the response team. It’s vital that all stakeholders — both internally and externally — are kept informed throughout the incident handling process.

An effective incident response plan should define communication protocols and procedures for notifying families, students, staff members, and third-party stakeholders (such as a cloud vendor or managed service provider). Crucially, schools should establish a policy for notifying law enforcement, as many states have strict laws on how quickly cyber threats must be reported.

5. Lessons learned

Incident management is a process of continuous improvement. That means you should always be looking for ways to enhance its effectiveness and streamline your team’s performance. This can help you prepare for a future incident more efficiently and greatly reduce time-to-response.

An IR plan generally includes protocols for gathering feedback and incorporating it into the process following an event.

Creating an incident response plan: Step-by-step instructions

There are many frameworks that provide guidelines on how to create an incident response plan, but few tailored exactly the needs of the K-12 school system. The good news? We’re here to help.

Let’s walk through the NIST framework step by step to better understand how you can create a cyber incident response plan that works for you and your district.

Phase 1: Preparation

The phase of the incident response process is all about preparing for a future incident. Whether it’s a data breach, cyber attack, or accidental leak doesn’t matter — the key is to enable a proactive approach to cyber risk management.

Understand the threat landscape

Conduct a risk assessment to identify your school’s potential cyber threats. This should help you decide the most critical assets and resources that deserve extra protection and prioritize risks based on incident severity.

Performing a risk assessment also allows you to acknowledge your vulnerabilities. By pinpointing areas of improvement, you can identify potential ways to harden your defenses with additional security tools and procedures.

Recruit and define your response team

Ideally, the response team will include members of various departments including IT, legal, human resources, and so on. At the very minimum, define the following roles and responsibilities:

  • Designated Team Lead: Responsible for coordinating and managing incident response activities.
  • IT Security Officer: Manages the technical aspects of response, such as investigation, containment, and recovery.
  • Communications Officer: Executes your communication protocols and relaying information both internally and externally during an incident.
  • School Counselor: Addresses the emotional and psychological impact on students and staff.
  • Legal Counsel: Offers legal guidance and ensures compliance with applicable regulations.
  • Managed IT Service Provider: Vendors may offer initial detection and response support.
  • Digital Forensic Vendor: Supplies specialized expertise or assistance, if necessary.

Develop an IR policy

Outline your district’s approach to cyber incident management. Develop a policy and/or strategy that specifies goals and the tactics you’ll use to achieve them.

Establish communication procedures

Identify individuals or departments that should be notified when a cyber incident occurs. Develop protocols for communicating events to internal stakeholders and decide on the most appropriate channels for keeping team members in the loop.

Establish backup channels in case primary ones are taken offline by the incident. Also, determine a policy for reporting an incident to external stakeholders such as families, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies.


Phase 2: Detection and Analysis

Event detection and incident analysis are vital steps. The quicker they’re completed, the sooner your team can intervene and mitigate the threat.

Establish monitoring capabilities

You must have a system in place for monitoring your environment — network and cloud domain included. This allows you to rapidly identify anomalies and strange behavior, such as a user downloading large amounts of sensitive data.

It’s also extremely helpful to automate threat detection. For example, security tools like a cloud monitoring solution can ease the burden of patrolling your cloud domain. The solution creates a set of rules — known as policies — that define appropriate and inappropriate user activities. When a violation occurs, such as when a student shares information to an unauthorized third party, you’ll be notified right away.

Investigate and analyze events

Once potential risks are identified, you have to conduct an incident analysis to determine its severity. This includes identifying the source of the threat and the extent of any damage or data loss. To continue the previous example, a cloud monitoring tool can be used to easily pinpoint users at fault and what actions they took to trigger a violation.

Collect evidence

Gather evidence of the suspected incident to confirm its validity. This can include system logs, network traffic data, user activity, and so on. These can help you decide the most appropriate procedures for mitigating the incident as quickly as possible.

Phase 3: Containment, Eradication, and Recovery

The third step in the NIST framework is where your district actually responds to the ongoing threat. It involves taking immediate action to intervene and restore systems to their pre-incident state.

Define containment procedures

The term “containment” refers to the process of preventing further damage. Once the team confirms a security incident, the immediate goal is to minimize short- and long-term repercussions. Containment procedures might include isolating the affected system, disabling network connections, and taking certain resources offline.

Create guidelines for classifying and escalating incidents

Some events are more harmful than others. It’s important to classify them based on incident severity, which is a measure of how damaging they might be to your district. Generally, there are three incident severity levels:

  1. Low: Minimal impact on systems.
  2. Medium: Potentially affecting multiple systems or users.
  3. High: Significantly impacting the availability, integrity, or confidentiality of data.

A cyber incident may begin as one level, but evolve into another. In this case, you should have escalation procedures that define criteria for when an event needs to be taken more seriously.

Design protocols for mitigation and recovery

Eradication refers to removing the threat from the affected system. It’s best to be sure the risk is fully eradicated before launching your recovery procedures and bringing resources back online. Establish guidelines for when it’s safe to return to normal operations.

Phase 4: Post-Incident Activity

Lastly, once systems are restored, your team should evaluate its performance. Post-incident analysis involves implementing measures to prevent future events from occurring.

Create policies for post-incident reviews

It’s important to conduct a review to better understand areas of improvements and how the IR plan should be updated. This involves analyzing team member and procedure effectiveness, implementing new security tools, identifying gaps, and increasing awareness and training exercises. Once lessons are gathered, they should be fed back into the IR plan.

Communicate results to stakeholders

Don’t be shy — share your IR plan with parents, guardians, students, staff members, and other stakeholders. Transparency can help get everyone on board with the process and demonstrates how seriously you take protecting student data from digital risk.

Claim your free incident response plan template today

Incident response planning is vital to data protection — but it isn’t easy. We know you have a lot on your plate. That’s why we’ve developed our one, free-to-use incident response plan template made specifically for K-12.

So, don’t reinvent the wheel. Download our template and kickstart your incident response plan journey today.

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