School IT leaders in K-12 schools face unique challenges when protecting their networks against cybersecurity threats because most school districts operate on rigidly tight budgets. Securing K-12 school networks requires a variety of tools and methods, from firewalls to employee training, and most schools struggle to justify investing in the level of cybersecurity they need.
With the proper knowledge and tools, school IT leaders can create a secure and reliable network environment that ensures the safety of students and staff while promoting a seamless educational experience.
Common Network Security Threats in K-12 Schools
Educational institutions store a wealth of student and staff information, including personal details, grades, and financial information. Protecting this personally identifiable information (PII) is of paramount importance in K-12 schools due to the sensitive nature of the data being handled and the potential risks associated with cyber threats. A breach in network security can lead to severe consequences, such as identity theft, data manipulation, and disruption of educational activities. Some of the common threats K-12 schools face include:
Phishing is an attempt by malicious actors to trick users into providing sensitive information or account access. Because phishing emails often appear legitimate, schools must educate their staff and students about warning signs and preventive measures.
Ransomware, often the result of a successful phishing attempt, allows cybercriminals to encrypt files and demand a ransom for their release. These attacks can disrupt school operations, compromise student data, and cause significant financial losses. Schools should implement regular backups, keep their systems up-to-date, and educate users about safe online practices to mitigate the risks associated with ransomware attacks.
Managing access to PII is challenging. Not only do staff and educators have access to some of the most sensitive student information, but many ed-tech vendors also have the same access. Schools must protect their networks from individuals attempting to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, but knowing who has access to the data is sometimes the biggest challenge. Understanding your vendor profiles, the potential risks that they add, and the weaknesses that they may have makes it much easier to protect yourself. Implementing robust authentication protocols, such as two-factor authentication, can help prevent unauthorized access and maintain the confidentiality of student and staff data.
Best Practices for IT Security in K-12 Schools
School IT leaders must pilot the effort to implement the necessary security for their districts. It is impractical to assume that an elected superintendent will understand the ramifications of a poor security posture without school IT leaders making the case for solid cybersecurity. These best practices are essential to overall network security:
Implement a Network Security Policy
A network security policy is crucial to a comprehensive network security strategy. A network security policy serves as a roadmap for school IT leaders and provides guidelines for implementing security measures. When creating a network security policy, school IT leaders should consider their specific educational institution's unique needs and challenges.
The policy should outline staff members' roles and responsibilities, define acceptable use of technology resources, and specify consequences for policy violations. It should also address incident response procedures, including reporting and remediation steps. Regular reviews and updates to the policy are essential to ensure its effectiveness in addressing evolving threats and technologies.
Staff, Student, and Teacher Training
Training for staff, students, and teachers should be ongoing. Schools should have a zero-trust policy and embrace cybersecurity as a first step towards protecting PII, not an afterthought. To effectively manage network security in K-12 schools and enhance district awareness, school IT leaders must stay updated on the latest threats, vulnerabilities, and best practices. Continuous training and education programs can help school IT leaders remain aware of emerging threats and new skills with which to combat these network security threats.
Secure Wi-Fi Networks
Attackers often target Wi-Fi networks to gain unauthorized access or intercept sensitive information. School IT leaders should implement robust encryption protocols, change default passwords, and segment the network to limit access to critical resources. They should also establish policies for safe internet usage and educate students and teachers about their obligations when using the network.
Cybersecurity Tools and Technology
Various tools and technologies can support K-12 network security efforts. Firewalls are vital for filtering incoming and outgoing network traffic, preventing unauthorized access, and blocking malicious content. Intrusion detection and prevention systems can monitor network activity and alert IT teams of potential threats and unauthorized access attempts. Endpoint protection software is critical because many external devices are brought into schools and connected to the network. This software helps safeguard individual devices, such as laptops and tablets, from malware and other security threats. Additionally, network monitoring tools allow IT teams to track network activity, identify anomalies, and respond proactively to potential security breaches.
A Secure and Reliable Network Is Within Reach
To safeguard student data and your school's digital infrastructure, understanding the school’s cyber attack surface and vulnerabilities is essential so your district can quickly address the critical vulnerabilities before disaster strikes. Arctic Security’s Early Warning Service (EWS) provides detailed and prioritized information on active threats and vulnerabilities with enough detail to help you quickly fix issues.
Daily, the EWS platform logs over 17 million observations impacting 90,000 organizations of varied scope and size in both public and private sectors worldwide. Arctic EWS handles threat types such as:
- Compromised systems, such as suspected malware infections
- Known vulnerabilities that are publicly visible and exploitable
- Public exposure of internal resources and interfaces
- Leaked access credentials
Get started today with the free trial we offer for K-12 schools.