Network Security for Schools: Tools, Tips, And Best Practices

Your school network is the most important piece of your entire IT infrastructure. But protecting it? That’s easier said than done.

In this guide, we’ll explore the basics of network security and what your district can do to protect network resources from cyberattacks.

What is network security?

According to IBM, network security is a subset of cybersecurity that protects computer networks and systems from various digital threats. More specifically, it has three primary goals:

  1. Prevent unauthorized access to network resources and their underlying infrastructure, including assets accessible through the network. These resources can include cloud applications, databases, and on-premise systems — each of which may contain sensitive and confidential data.
  2. Detect and stop cyberattacks and security breaches in progress. Network security can identify incidents earlier, thereby minimizing the damage.
  3. Provide authorized users with consistent and secure access to the network resources they need. For instance, in a K-12 environment, online learning platforms may be an essential resource for your students and staff. If an incident renders an important application inaccessible, it could disrupt your everyday operations — or worse, your students’ education.

Keep in mind that network security is just one cog in a much bigger machine known as defense in depth. In short, a defense-in-depth strategy advocates for using multiple layers of security measures across the entire IT infrastructure. That way, you have stopgaps to keep threats from spreading.

Aside from the network, the other core components include:

  • Physical security
  • Endpoint security
  • Application security
  • Cloud security

For more information on multi-layered security strategies, check out this comprehensive guide.

Why is network security important in K-12?

Failure to protect the network can be devastating for a school district. Think about it: What if hackers gained access to your information systems?

First of all, it would have a severe financial impact. The Government Accountability Office estimates the average K-12 cyberattack results in damages ranging between $50,000 to over $1 million. That includes the cost of replacing network equipment, computer hardware, and other knock-on effects.

Next, you have to consider compliance. Allowing sensitive information to fall into the wrong hands could put your school district at risk of violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), among other data privacy regulations.

Most importantly, data breaches are a violation of student privacy. Without network security, hackers could easily steal personal information — names, addresses, Social Security numbers, etc.

Then, there’s almost no telling what they would do next. Will they sell that data on the dark web? Would they steal a student’s identity and tarnish their credit? Could they be so bold as to harass the student and their family?

Sadly, all of the above can and have happened. But, with the right network security tools, protecting your school district doesn’t have to be an uphill battle.

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K-12 network security challenges

As the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reports, hackers are targeting K-12 school systems at a record pace. However, most educational districts lack the resources to implement an adequate cybersecurity program. To make matters more complicated, numerous obstacles are blocking the road to cyber maturity:

  • IT sprawl: As infrastructure expands, more computers, laptops, mobile phones, and other devices are connected to the school network. These endpoints are often unpatched personal devices that lack sufficient protection, which means hackers can exploit them.
  • Access control: Cloud applications, like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365, allow you to issue students school-provided accounts. Kids, teachers, and staff members can use network resources through these profiles. But, as the attack surface expands, managing access control policies isn’t easy. For instance, you may accidentally permit students to see grade books or other confidential databases.
  • Remote learning: Schools rapidly accelerated their digital transformations during the pandemic. Today, many districts still support at-home learning through cloud services and online platforms. However, this again expands the attack surface by allowing students to access school resources via their home network, which may lack security.
  • Little visibility: Many districts don’t have a way of monitoring activity effectively. With hundreds and sometimes thousands of students and staff members, not to mention countless endpoints and third-party vendors, spotting potential threats is like looking for needles in a haystack. Inevitably, you’ll allow an incident to pass through the network undetected.

K-12 network security threats

Another factor to consider is that the K-12 security landscape is constantly evolving. And, unfortunately, so are cybercriminals themselves. There are several different types of cyber threats to watch out for, but here are the ones that most often impact your network:

  • Malware: Viruses, worms, ransomware — the list goes on. Hackers are developing new strains of malicious software all the time. The goal? Infect as many vulnerable organizations as possible. More often than not, they tend to be school districts. According to Microsoft, the education sector accounts for over 80% of all reported malware encounters in the past 30 days.
  • Social engineering: The term “social engineering” refers to a tactic where hackers psychologically manipulate people to divulge confidential information. For example, phishing attacks involve a bad actor masquerading as a legitimate user, such as a teacher or fellow student. They target someone else in the district, convincing them via email or direct message to share sensitive data like login credentials or Social Security numbers. This allows them to exfiltrate more information and access network resources.
  • DDoS attacks: Distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are when hackers overwhelm a specific domain with illegitimate network traffic. This can knock systems offline, rendering services unavailable. Believe it or not, you can purchase a DDoS attack online for as little as $5. In fact, schools are increasingly finding their own students as the primary perpetrators.
  • Insider threats: External parties may often be to blame, but sometimes authorized users are responsible for network security incidents. Staff members, for example, could abuse their legitimate access privileges to share data outside the district.

Network security tools, tips, and best practices

Here’s the good news: Network security doesn’t have to be so painful. With the right mix of tools and best practices, you can simplify the effort and protect your network from all types of attacks.

Let’s take a look at some of the important network security tips:

1. Use a reliable virtual private network (VPN)

Providing a VPN service to staff is a great way to mitigate the risks of remote learning. In basic terms, a VPN establishes a secure, encrypted connection on top of the local network. That way, users can safely access their essential school resources without worrying about hackers intercepting their traffic and stealing sensitive information.

2. Train staff and students to identify risks

Help users spot potential scams by teaching them about the hallmarks of phishing:

  • Incorrect domain names and websites
  • Messages that exude a sense of urgency
  • Requests to download attachments or click on links
  • Bad grammar and spelling, as well as overly formal language

Knowing these warning signs will help them avoid incidents and become more responsible digital citizens.

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3. Educate users on password hygiene

People tend to reuse passwords for multiple accounts. They also base their passwords on personal information, such as their birthday, pets, or last name. However, these are easily guessable details that hackers crack without breaking a sweat. They can also often pull this kind of information together from data leaks, social media and gaming sites, etc.

As best practice, set up your accounts with passwords that are less likely to be able to be guessed or pulled from public sources. Many districts have a habit of creating passwords using birthdates or student ID numbers. The problem with this is that is makes it easier for hackers to guess those passwords. Together with common naming conventions for both user names and passwords, many districts have fallen victim to attacks simply due to poor password policies.

Try to create passwords that are more complex, particularly for staff but also for students as much as possible. They should contain both uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Longer passwords are also better. CISA recommends password length should be at least 16 characters long.

4. Implement device management systems

If you’re a 1:1 school district, you may be worried about students misplacing their devices — especially if they’re unprotected. Anybody who finds it could gain unfettered access to its content, not to mention your school network.

That’s where a device management tool comes into play. Take ManagedMethods’ Content Filter, for example. Although it’s primarily a web filtering platform, it also allows you to view a device’s last-known location, including its IP address. You can also see which users have logged in and when, and what version of Chrome is running on it.

This enables you to potentially recover lost or stolen devices — or, if not, you can remotely block anyone from using Chrome.

5. Segment the network

Network segmentation is the practice of dividing your school network into parts. Each segment is like its own slice of the primary network, but it’s isolated from the rest.

Why? Because this prevents lateral movement. In other words, if you suffer a data breach, malware won’t easily move across the network to infect more systems and steal more data.

6. Block access to malicious websites

One of the most common ways cyber incidents begin is when users access dangerous domains. Let’s say a student uses your school-issued device to download a pirated movie — only to infect their laptop with malware.

Web filters allow you to block students from accessing such websites in the first place. That way, you can enforce safe browsing policies, avoid viruses, and protect kids from inappropriate content.

Go beyond network security with ManagedMethods

At ManagedMethods, we recommend to school districts that the best way to protect student data is with multiple layers of security. Why? To begin with, every district has a web filter and a firewall. Until recently, many district technology teams thought that this was enough to secure their data. The past few years of cyberattacks, ransomware, and remote learning have opened K12’s eyes to the new reality of online learning.

This reality requires a multilayered cybersecurity strategy. Because, with all of your layers working together toward a common goal, you can prevent any one of them from being compromised.

Content Filter, a browser-based web filtering tool, allows you to block websites at scale. As a Chrome extension, it uses artificial intelligence to secure your students’ browsing experience with virtually no impact on performance.

Using Cloud Monitor, will protect your district’s Google Workspace and Microsoft 365—and jump into action with speed and confidence. With data loss prevention capabilities and almost real-time phishing and malware detection, it’ll alert you when users violate your security policies.

Want to learn more about how ManagedMethods can support your school district’s multilayered cybersecurity strategy? Request a demo of our solutions today.

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