What is a Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan?

Cybersecurity threats are a constant problem in today’s digital world. But, for the U.S. school system, it’s an especially serious concern.

K-12 school districts process loads of sensitive data about students and staff members. It only takes a single security breach for personal information to wind up in the wrong hands — and at that point, anything can happen.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry about being blindsided by a cyber attack. With a cybersecurity incident response plan, you can effectively navigate the storm and make it out clean on the other side.

Not familiar with incident response planning? No problem. Let’s dive into the basics of incident management and how you can best protect your district from future threats.

What’s an incident response plan?

A cybersecurity incident response plan — or IRP for short — is a document that outlines all of the actions an organization should take in the event of a data breach, cyber attack, or similar security incident.

Think of an IRP like a football team’s playbook. It’s a comprehensive resource that defines your exact course of action, including all of the strategies and tactics you’ll use to coach your team to success. Only in this case, instead of scoring touchdowns and defending your endzone, you’re mitigating cybersecurity threats and safeguarding sensitive data.

What’s the value of incident response planning?

Incident response planning is essential to data protection. Why? Consider how devastating an unexpected cybersecurity incident can be.

Not only does it often take weeks (if not months) to recover from a data breach, but it’s incredibly expensive. In fact, the amount of money organizations spend recovering from cyber attacks will increase 75% by 2025.

In contrast, incident response plans can help you save big — as much as $2.66 million per incident. Instead of reacting to threats as they arise, an IRP allows you to proactively prepare for and mitigate future incidents before they occur.

Benefits of proactive incident management

Cyber threat containment is a lot easier when you have a comprehensive resource at your disposal. With an IRP, your security team can:

  • Minimize damage: Incident response plans help you respond faster, which means you can get ahead of ongoing events and prevent them from further impacting the affected system.
  • Reduce liabilities: The more effective your response, the better you can decrease exposure to compliance violations and legal consequences.
  • Improve recovery: Enhancing your incident handling procedures also can streamline recovery and help you rebound to a state of normalcy.
  • Drive continuous improvement: IRPs create a framework to feed lessons learned into your incident response process to better mitigate future incidents.


How do incident response plans protect your district?

Experts often say that incident response planning and information security are two halves of the same coin. In reality, they’re more like two faces on the same multi-sided die.

There are many factors involved in data protection. Aside from incident response, it’s also important to have a business continuity and disaster recovery plan. However, when it comes to safeguarding sensitive data, an IRP is more than enough to get you started.

Types of security threats

Incident response plans are designed to thwart any type of cyber threat you might encounter. Let’s take a look at the most significant:

  • Malware: Malicious software infects your district, spreading from system to system and exfiltrating information to an outside destination. These attacks are often the result of users blindly downloading attachments and clicking on shady links.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware attacks involve cyber criminals accessing personal information and holding it hostage in exchange for payment. In 2022, almost 2,000 districts were impacted by ransomware — double the number compromised in 2021. Even worse, hackers successfully exfiltrated data at a rate of two-thirds in 2022, up from half that figure in 2021.
  • Phishing: Hackers try to trick targets into revealing login credentials or personal information. Once they do, the scammers crack into the account and attempt to fool other users into doing the same. Meanwhile, they’re quietly stealing sensitive data.
  • DDoS: Distributed-Denial-of-Service attacks overload your school network with bots, thus rendering critical systems offline. This can be a major disruption to regular operations and the learning experience.
  • Account takeovers: Whether as a result malware, phishing, or a similar tactic, hackers gain control over student accounts. This gives them almost unfettered access to additional resources throughout the cloud domain.
  • Third-party risk: Many districts are leveraging cloud applications like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 to augment their classrooms. But, the more cloud vendors you allow to access student data, the greater your cyber attack surface becomes. Sometimes, even third-parties themselves can leak information to the public.

The good news? Incident response plans ensure you’re one step ahead of these evolving threats. No matter the cyber incident, you’ll be well-prepared to manage the damage and keep students safe.

What are the key elements of an incident response plan?

Generally, an IRP has a few essential components:

1. The incident response team

The incident response process doesn’t complete itself, which is why you must clearly identify the members of your response team. These stakeholders have important incident management responsibilities and must take their roles seriously.

These people should include at minimum:

  • Incident response team lead: The quarterback of your security team. They’re job is to manage all aspects of the process and coordinate all activities.
  • Security officer: This person represents the technical aspects of the response process (investigation, containment, recovery, etc.).
  • Communications officer: Responsible for keeping internal stakeholders informed and reporting incidents to external parties, such as parents and law enforcement.

Other roles may include a designated legal counsel, managed IT service provider, or digital forensic specialist.

2. A simple, well-defined response process

There are two major frameworks that define the incident handling workflow: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Incident Response Framework and the SANS Institute’s Incident Response Framework.

Both have a slightly different spin on the process, but generally outline the same basic steps:

  1. Preparation: Here, you’ll review your existing information security protocols and evaluate their effectiveness. You’ll assess your vulnerabilities and prioritize threats that must be mitigated immediately.
  2. Identification: Also called detection and analysis, this phase includes proactively monitoring your environment to identify potential incidents. Once a cyber threat is detected, you’ll collect evidence and evaluate the danger.
  3. Containment: With the risk identified, you’ll implement the appropriate containment measures to limit its impact on the affected system.
  4. Eradication: Next, the response team must eliminate the threat until all traces of the security breach have been removed.
  5. Recovery: After removing the threat, the response team must restore all systems, accounts, applications, and other assets to normal operation.
  6. Lessons Learned: The team must gather feedback, evaluate their performance, and funnel their lessons back into the IRP — thus enabling continuous improvement.

3. Key performance indicators (KPIs)

KPIs are metrics that help you understand how effectively you managed the cyber incident. Some examples include:

  • Mean time to recover: How long it took you to restore systems from the moment you identified the threat.
  • Uptime: The amount of time your systems were online and functional during the incident.
  • Cost per incident: Damage represented as a monetary cost to your school district.


4. An internal and external communications strategy

It’s important to have procedures in place that define exactly when certain response team members and stakeholders will be notified of a data breach. This includes students, parents, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies.

Keep in mind some states have strict data breach notification regulations.

5. Documentation and reporting guidelines

Likewise, the IRP should outline how your team will formally document the incident. This includes details as to when the threat began, when it was detected, how it was identified, and which assets were impacted. Again, keep in mind your respective state’s reporting requirements so that you maintain compliance.

6. Escalation procedures

You must also clearly define criteria for declaring a critical incident. This refers to a security threat that is of the highest severity — one that affects the availability, integrity, or confidentiality of data and requires immediate attention. Generally, it’s best practice to classify incidents based on severity level on a scale of low, medium, and high.

How to optimize incident response

It’s not sufficient enough just to have an IRP in place. There are many ways you can make the most of your incident response process and empower your team to do their best:

  1. Perform a risk assessment: Evaluate all possible threats that may or may not be on your radar. This helps you identify exactly what type of incidents you should be looking out for and proactively protecting your school district against.
  2. Specify your most critical assets: Decide which systems, applications, accounts, and devices need the most protection. An easy way to do this is to define which ones have access to or store the most sensitive information. Classifying by sensitivity will help you allocate your limited resources more efficiently.
  3. Prepare public statements: You don’t want to waste time during a crisis drawing up notification letters. Do this in advance and make sure you have drafted statements ready to go, not only to minimize reputational damage, but also to expedite the process.
  4. Automate cloud monitoring: Cloud apps are an increasingly frequent target for malicious activity. Keep eyes on your cloud-based data by deploying an automated monitoring tool like ManagedMethods. This takes the guesswork out of threat detection and greatly reduces the burden on your busy security team.
  5. Test and update on a regular basis: You should review your cybersecurity incident response plan at least annually to ensure it holds up over time. Stay abreast of industry best practices to keep it fine tuned and ready to stop the latest threats in their tracks.

Streamline threat protection with an IRP template

As important as IRPning is, many schools aren’t doing it. In fact, over a third of school districts don’t have an incident response plan whatsoever.

Whether it be a lack of understanding or a shortage of resources, this is a big vulnerability. Fortunately, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve developed an easy-to-use incident response plan template — specifically made for the unique needs and challenges of a K-12 school district.

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