K-12 information technology (IT) departments have their hands full — especially when it comes to cybersecurity.
Cyber risk management is no easy task, whether you’re investigating a potential threat or protecting students from an ongoing security incident. It’s even more overwhelming if you’re not using a well-designed incident response plan to focus your efforts.
This guide’ll help you understand the importance of incident response planning and how you can better mitigate cyber threats and future incidents with an easy-to-use template.
What is an incident response plan?
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an incident response plan is a documented and predetermined set of instructions or procedures to detect, respond to, and limit the consequences of a malicious cyber attack.
Although that’s an accurate description, let’s expand the definition a bit further. Incident response planning also encompasses any cybersecurity precaution your school security team takes to mitigate the impact of accidental data leaks.
In other words, students and staff members are just as likely to cause a cyber incident and expose sensitive data as a malicious outsider. As a matter of fact, a government report even indicates that many school data leaks are an accident (and most of the time staff are to blame). So, incident response plans must also account for the possibility of an insider threat, whether intentional or not.
Why are incident response plans important?
School districts have a moral (and legal) responsibility to protect their students’ sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands. Incident response plans play a significant role in getting the job done right.
Okay — but why are they so necessary? Can’t your security team just respond to cyber threats as they appear?
The short answer is no. Taking an ad-hoc approach to the incident response process would be ill-advised. With so many threat vectors to manage, it’s only a matter of time for one to slip by your defenses. And the truth? Cybersecurity is only getting tougher.
A recently published federal report revealed that school cyber attacks are increasing, both in terms of volume and severity. In fact, cyber threats tripled during the pandemic alone. The report also indicated that most K-12 administrators feel poorly equipped to manage cyber risk, as they have few resources to spare for cybersecurity.
An active security incident can feel like mayhem, which is why incident response planning is so helpful. A well-designed action plan can help you reel in the chaos and organize a faster, more effective response to the ongoing threat.
Incident response vs. disaster recovery vs. business continuity
A school district’s ability to efficiently detect, respond, and recover from a data breach or cyber attack ultimately determines how impacted it is by the incident. This is where planning comes into play. The better prepared your security team is, the better you can mitigate future incidents.
Generally, a proactive cyber risk management strategy has three essential planning components: incident response, disaster recovery, and business continuity. Let’s dissect each one to understand their similarities and differences:
1. Incident response planning is specifically designed to manage a threat’s lifecycle. The goal is to seamlessly transition from threat detection to mitigation to recovery without skipping a beat.
2. Disaster recovery planning is an organized approach to redirecting IT resources and restoring sensitive data after a critical incident. So, it’s more focused on actions you take in the aftermath of an event.
3. Business continuity planning is about minimizing downtime. A cyber attack could render information technology services offline, such as a cloud application. This type of plan is designed to avoid disruption and maintain daily operations during and after a critical incident.
Although they may sound interchangeable, the truth is that they’re not. These plans build off one another to paint a complete picture. Ultimately, it’s still important to have a standalone response plan.
Best practices for developing an incident response plan
Let’s explore the essential steps you can take to create a cybersecurity incident response plan that works for you and your district:
1. Clarify the purpose
Students, staff, teachers, and parents should be looped into your plan. They have to know why the incident response playbook is important to data protection and how it works in practice. This keeps everyone on the same page and working together toward the same goal.
2. Establish roles and responsibilities
You must also clearly identify your response team members, as these people will play key roles throughout the process. An effective incident response plan will articulate exactly what’s expected of each member at various stages of the threat lifecycle.
These roles might include:
- Team leader: Responsible for coordinating response activities.
- IT security officer: Handles technical aspects of incident response.
- Communication officer: Keeps everyone informed during an ongoing security incident.
- Legal counsel: Provides legal guidance and ensures compliance.
3. Outline the response process
Familiarize yourself and your team with the basic steps of the incident response workflow:
- Preparation: Perform risk assessments, prioritize security issues, identify sensitive data, and create a communication plan.
- Detection and analysis: Identify abnormal behavior and potential incidents, collect evidence, and analyze the severity of the threat.
- Containment: Intervene and prevent further damage to the affected system.
- Eradication: Identify the root cause of the incident and patch the vulnerability.
- Recovery: Return systems to normal operation and monitor to ensure the threat is dealt with.
- Lessons learned: Feed insights back into the response process to better mitigate future incidents.
4. Create classification levels
Not all cyber threats require the same level of attention from the response team. Classify potential incidents by severity — low, medium, and high — to better allocate your resources.
5. Define your communication policy
Create a structure for stakeholders looping in when an incident occurs. You should have protocols for internal communication between team members and policies for when you must disclose the incident to students, parents, and law enforcement.
6. Launch training and awareness campaigns
Students and staff members can’t participate in data protection if they don’t know how they can help. Make it aware to everyone what part they play in securing sensitive data. Hold classroom sessions and connect students to digital literacy resources to help them learn.
7. Use a template to your advantage
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We know you’re busy managing an ever-growing swarm of cyber threats. That’s why we’ve taken the pain out of the process and designed a free incident response plan template — made specifically for K-12 school districts.
Leverage our template to streamline your incident response planning and take threat protection to a whole new level. Combined with the power of automated cloud monitoring, ManagedMethods is here to help you protect your school district from digital risk.